African Language Instruction: Bridging Communities in Champaign County

Mabinty Tarawallie, a community collaborator and Master’s student in the University of Illinois’ School of Social Work, was inspired to develop African language learning clubs at Champaign-based elementary schools after attending the Leadership Center’s Ignite program.  This 8-hour event helps participants cultivate the necessary skills to plan and initiate their own formal organizations and programs. Mabinty reflected on her identity as an immigrant from Sierra Leone and her experiences when she was an elementary school student in Champaign County who rarely encountered positive African-centered content in curriculums. She resolved to facilitate an inclusive, welcoming space for participating elementary students to learn about African cultures, histories, and languages.

This program came to fruition in the Fall semester of 2012 with a Swahili-language club at the Garden Hills Elementary and a second Wolof-language club at Booker T. Washington Elementary. Both clubs are headed by volunteers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who either formally teach, or are enrolled in African language courses. Swahili and Wolof are two widely-spoken languages that serve as Lingua Francas in counties on the African continent’s East and West coasts, respectively.

Swahili, also known as Kiswahili, originates from the Arabic word “Swahel” that means “coastal”. It is one of many Bantu languages spoken mainly in East African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania (including the Zanzibar archipelago), Uganda and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Swahili remains an essential language of commerce, instruction, politics, and news outlets.  Furthermore, The African Union – an intergovernmental organization aspiring to promote cooperation, solidarity, and sustainable development among African States – designated Swahili as one of its official languages.


Illustration of regions where Swahili is spoken on the East African Coast.
Picture from:

Wolof, also known as Ouolof and Walaf, encompasses more than five key dialects and is primarily spoken in Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, the southern part of Mauritania, and Senegal, though Wolof speakers are located around the world. According to UCLA Language Materials Project, Wolof has approximately 7,000,000 speakers worldwide. Wolof is written in both Arabic and Latin script and, like Swahili remains a crucial and influential language used in economics, media, politics and religion.

Illustration of regions where Wolof is spoken on the West African Coast.
Photo from:

Mabinty aspires to extend the African language program to Straton Elementary School and to eventually coordinate student tours to the Krannert Art Museum’s Encounters: The Arts of Africa. She has partnered with the Krannert Art Museum in the past by taking part in a gallery talk themed “Creating Community through African Art” on October 25, 2012. Mabinty, along with fellow participants Allyson Purpura, who curated the African Gallery, Anne Lutomia, and Sam Smith were tasked with relating selected gallery artworks to their social identities. Mabinty chose to reflect on a Sande mask, which is usually adorned by Mende women in Sierra Leone during their initiation into adulthood. “My mother is part of the Sande society and I feel a sense of being a part as well, through her experience. So in a way I was sharing my culture through art with the community,” she said.

Mabinty is seeking volunteers who speak, or are studying African languages to help facilitate a language club at Straton Elementary on Tuesdays from 2:15pm – 3:15pm. This program is one step in a wider initiative to foster a greater understanding and respect among African and American elementary school students, and the wider Champaign community.  Whether we consider ourselves members of a local or global community, Mabinty maintains that we are all connected.


“African Union: A United and Strong Africa.” The African Union Commission. Accessed September 10, 2013.

“Wolof.” UCLA Language Materials Project. Accessed September 12, 2013.

Share this post:
Facebook Twitter Tumblr