31 October 2014

Africa In Minnesota

Not surprisingly, I find myself drawn to students who come from countries and cultures other than my own. Even less surprisingly, I am particularly interested in connecting with students from Africa.

Last week a student, whom I had helped a number of times last year, approached me and asked if I could help her friend. I said, of course! She came back with her friend who had a question about formatting her powerpoint presentation. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to help much but I noticed that her slides mentioned Nairobi. I told the students that I had been to Nairobi and they both were excited because they were Kenyan. We then had a conversation about East Africa, the weather, and food, and how I had lived in Uganda, studied in Tanzania, visited Kenya, and knew a bit of Swahili.

It made my day. My week, actually.

Since that day, the friend has come back several times for additional help and each time she speaks to me almost entirely in Swahili. I can't always respond in Swahili but I usually understand what she is saying. I told her one day how much I appreciated her speaking to me in Swahili because it helps me learn.

She answered with this:

Thank you for letting me speak Swahili. It makes me feel comfortable. It makes me feel at home.

This conversation reminded me of two things:
  1. Relationships are reciprocal. Yes, I help students all day. Help that might be one way. But I don't want that help to always be one way. Just like in Uganda, I have the opportunity to learn from my students. Sometimes I learn something like a language or a new subject they're researching. But other times a student may offer me the gift of their story. And I can learn who they are. (Side note: it's actually quite amazing what students will tell you when you are willing to listen.)
  2. I don't have to forget Uganda or East Africa. It's been hard for me to reconcile my two stories and to find ways to connect my new life in Minnesota to my old life in Uganda. But moments like this remind me that the world is small. And those experiences will never leave me. And sometimes, they might just lead me to make new connections.

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