My interest in linguistics began at the age of 12 when my father, a high school band director, signed up for a two-year contract with a branch of AID called Teacher Education in East Africa. During a six-week summer orientation program at Columbia University, adults and children alike took Swahili classes. I still have a whimsical diploma from completing that course, signed by the youthful Sharifa Zawawi, who went on to write a number of books on the language including what was for many years the most widely used Swahili text in the US.
My dad was assigned to work at a teacher training college near the town of Nyeri, about 100 miles from Nairobi. We loved the time we spent there for many reasons. It led to lasting friendships with Kenyans and expatriates from far-flung countries. During the holidays we traveled all over East Africa, tenting in the vast park systems surrounded by teeming wildlife, and snorkeling the gorgeous coral reefs.
My brother and I experienced the novelty of British style schools with their uniforms and prefects. Swahili was an option alongside of French and Latin at Kenya High School. I had fallen in love with it so I was glad I could continue to study. African writers like Ngugi wa Thiongo and Chinua Achebe opened new worlds to me. Because this was soon after independence, there was a wonderfully optimistic vibe in the country. On the other hand, lingering inequities and prejudices of the colonial period were a vivid part of daily life; this gave me an awareness and interest in world affairs and social justice that animated my experiences and perceptions forever after.
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