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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!