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When I was eleven years old, I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Ghana, West Africa. Between visiting numerous historical landmarks and village shrines, I noticed that our tour group easily navigated through most metropolitan areas and even some rural towns speaking English. At the time, I was too young to understand the lingual impact of colonialism on many African countries. However, I’d later become an international student at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies and ironically, learn on the soil of Ghana’s former colonizer about colonialism’s numerous consequences.

Truthfully, it is far easier for travelers to navigate through multiple African countries knowing English and French. Yet ignoring the languages of our ancestors and learning European languages out of convenience, does not preserve the motherland’s cultural history. I admire authors of African literature, such as Chinua Achebe, that continue to write in African languages as a form of political resistance. In that spirit, I’d encourage more black women to explore the languages of Africa that don’t have European origins. If you have dreams of traveling our ancestral continent, below are five languages that should be on your radar.

Swahili
If you’ve attended a Kwanzaa celebration, you’ve already received your first lesson of basic Swahili vocabulary. Habari gani, Umoja, Ujima, you name it; you’ve shouted your first Swahili words. The language is spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Uganda, amongst many more. With approximately 50 million people conversing in Swahili, I challenge you to go beyond the Kwanzaa principles, visit one of these countries, and learn more Swahili. You’ll be the talk of town next December!

Twi
As a principal language of Ghana, Twi stems from the Akan people, but is spoken by over 20 million. Due to slavery, Twi also lives in Suriname and Jamaica, making it a symbol of Diaspora and Akan ancestry. Many African-Americans, along with Caribbean descendants, have ancestral roots in Ghana. If your great great great grandparents were Akan, why not visit and learn some basic terminology.

Yoruba
Popularly spoken in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, Yoruba is the native language of the Yoruba people, with approximately 20 million speakers. Like Swahili, it is classified as a Niger-Congo language, but it has spread past continent to places in Europe and the United States along with its descendants. If exploring Nigeria, Benin, or Togo is on your bucket list, attend an African language institute for a class in Yoruba.

Zulu
While South Africa is a high-demand destination for many travelers, few take the time to learn one of the country’s official languages, Zulu. With the vast majority of Zulu people living in South Africa, the language is spoken and understood in many homes. If you’re looking to venture beyond South Africa’s white communities and posh neighborhoods, try learning a few Zulu phrases and indulging in the culture of its people.

Wolof
Known primarily as the language of Senegal, Wolof is spoken by almost 18 million people and in other countries, such as Gambia and Mauritania. Natively, it comes from the Wolof people, but it has transcended the ethnicity to various other cultures, both outside and within Senegal. While it is quite difficult to learn, the Senegalese will be impressed if you show off a few phrases while visiting their country. I remember a Senegalese man asked my name in Wolof and I replied. You would’ve thought I walked on water with the praise that followed. Small efforts count.

What African countries and languages are on your bucket list? Share your lingual ambitions and accomplishments with us!

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  • AD

    If only you knew… Just like Aboriginal languages are on the verge of becoming extinct in Canada, so will lots of African dialects. If it weren’t for the high rates of illiteracy and the never-ending wars, only French, English, Spanish and Portuguese would be the only languages spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. The truth is that the friggin African elites, the ones who then become the political leaders of their countries, do not teach their mother tongues to their children. They’re so eager to appear civilized or acquainted with modernity that they’d rather have their children only speak the European languages of the former colonial powers than their own languages. I know what I’m talking about. I’m from Cote d’Ivoire, in my mid-thirties and almost none of my friends can spout a word in the local languages. If it weren’t for the French white female friend of my mom who insisted the latter taught me her mother tongue, I’d have known the same fate as my friends. My friends are parents now and unfortunately, we all live in Western countries. However, all of them are all about making sure their kids will be perfect Francophones or Anglophones. I’m telling you: the worst enemies of Africa are its highly educated elites. It doesn’t matter if they were educated abroad or in Africa, as soon as they hit the school’s pews, they turn into a lost cause.