Introducing Dr. Kristina Riedel and the Swahili reference resources at the IAS Library

When University students enter classroom for the very first session of their semester-long Swahili course, many are quite surprised to see Dr. Kristina Riedel standing at the lectern or writing the day’s vocabulary list on the board.  They tentatively take their seats, perplexed as the Berlin born linguist hands out syllabi and greets them with Habari Zenu ‘how are you’ in Tanzanian Standard Kiswahili. Students pursuing their first semester of Swahili coursework may be surprised to know that Riedel’s enthusiasm and earnest passion for East African cultures and languages spans the breadth of her young adulthood and much of her academic career.

Riedel took her first trip to Tanzania at the age of fourteen on a family vacation and was immediately smitten with Swahili society and culture. She endeavored to return and make the coast of Tanzania her new home. Years later she pursued her dream by getting enrolled in a four-year Swahili degree program. One of the requirements for the curriculum was a semester-long intensive study abroad program at the Institute of Kiswahili and Foreign Languages in Zanzibar town and another semester at the University of Dar es Salaam. Riedel excelled in Swahili and her quick grasp of the language earned her the respect of Tanzanian students enrolled at both institutions, with some of whom she maintains close friendships to this day.

Dr. Kristina Riedel

At the culmination of her undergraduate studies, she received her B.A. in African Language and Culture, with a concentration in Swahili. Riedel was awarded her M.A. in 2003 and Ph.D. in 2009 in Linguistics from the University of Leiden, having completed her graduate fieldwork and dissertation on the Syntax of object marking in Sambaa – a Bantu language spoken by the Wasambaa people situated in northwestern Tanzania.

Riedel has dedicated much of her academic and professional career to conducting fieldwork on Bantu languages spoken in different parts of Tanzania, namely Swahili – a Coastal lingua franca on the African continent’s east coast spoken in Kenya, mainland Tanzania, the Zanzibar archipelago, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and other Sub-Saharan African nations. She currently serves as the Director and Language Coordinator of Sub-Saharan African Languages, advisor for the Sub-Saharan African Languages Minor, and lecturer of Swahili with the University of Illinois’ Department of Linguistics. She is also one of the catalysts for the new Swahili reference section at the one subject library of our university library – International and Area Studies Library (IASL), located in the Main Library Room 321.

Beginning in fall 2013, Riedel established a relationship with IASL by collaborating with African Studies Bibliographer, Dr. Atoma Batoma, on a central space to access Swahili language reference materials including comprehensive dictionaries, grammar guides, and textbooks, and companion audio CD-ROMs used in the University’s Swahili curriculum. Riedel compiled a list of useful materials shelved in disparate sections within the University Library’s Main Stacks and helped organize their transfer to the International and Area Studies Library’s Africana Reference Collection. These materials are located on a newly designated shelf for Swahili language learners. Riedel hopes that showing the volume of resources available will not only encourage Swahili language learners to utilize the University’s library, but also get an idea of the scope of Swahili materials published and available to them. A current truncated list of Swahili reference books available at the IASL can be found here, but please note that this list is growing as Swahili reference books are transferred from the Main Stacks. These reference books do not circulate, but library patrons may read them in the IASL. They can also scan them at the IASL and send the scans to their email addresses, or save them to their USB flash drives.

Africana Reference Collection  and Swahili materials at the International and Area Studies Library

Aside from the Swahili reference resources at the IASL, Riedel has used other avenues to promote the visibility of topics on East Africa such as offering a new course LING199: Language, culture and identity in East Africa and the Swahili-speaking world. This class covers Swahili language and linguistic diversity in East Africa. Riedel also worked with ATLAS information technology services to design a more robust Swahili Program website for University of Illinois faculty and students. The University’s Swahili Program website has been completely refurbished as she updated a number of the site’s features such as web links to online Swahili dictionaries, the Swahili Proverbs website created and funded by the Center for African Studies,  and resources created at the University of Illinois’ library including: the Africana Film DatabaseAfricana Collections and Services website and the African Studies Internet Portal.

Furthermore, the Swahili website now includes updated information on the 18 credit hour Sub-Saharan African Languages Minor for undergraduate students interested in gaining proficiency in Bamana, Lingala, Swahili, Wolof, or Zulu. This minor requires students to complete coursework in African Studies and Linguistics and compliments nearly any curriculum, especially for students who have an interest in working or studying abroad in Africa. Riedel also encourages Swahili language learners and those interested in East Africa to check out her public YouTube collection of documentaries, movies, news programs, etc.

University of Illinois students seeking to gain proficiency in Swahili can expect a structured, rigorous, and first-rate curriculum from the University of Illinois’ Swahili program and from Dr. Riedel, or as many of her students call her, “Mwalimu ‘teacher’ Kristina.” And beginning this Spring 2014 semester, the IASL now houses a number excellent reference resources on Swahili. We welcome users from various backgrounds to come into our library and use our resources. IASL also has librarians to help you with research questions on these topics.

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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.
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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.
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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.

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