Ryan Marr (GSIS) is in Tanzania on an African Flagship Languages Initiative (AFLI) scholarship from the Boren awards. He spent last semester studying Swahili and living with a host family in Arusha, Tanzania. Now, he is doing an internship at Nkoaranga Lutheran Hospital. Below are excerpts from an interview with him.
African and South Asian Flagship Languages Initiative (AFLI/SAFLI) Interview Ryan D Marr (AFLI)
How did you become interested in studying an AFLI language? I became interested in studying an AFLI language and Swahili in particular due to the general lack of academic and strategic interest demonstrated to the extremist threats present in Africa. While studying for my bachelor’s degree, I focused my attention and eventual thesis on counter-insurgency and irregular warfare. Insurgencies thrive in areas of minimal oversight and I saw great potential for the expansion of groups such as Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab in areas of limited economic progress. Swahili is one of the most widely spoken languages within the continent and its value as an intelligence asset has already been proven through Al-Shabaab’s online recruiting efforts targeting Kenyan and Tanzanian youth. The ability for these groups to take advantage of poor cooperative security efforts and intelligence sharing has been demonstrated time and again, including the recent devastating attack on a Kenyan military camp in Somalia. In order to best safeguard East Africa’s future it is absolutely necessary that Swahili acquisition become a priority for the defense community.
How did you learn about the AFLI program? I became aware of the AFLI program through my mentor, Dean Phillip Jones at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. He was familiar with my area of focus, (Global Security and Intelligence Studies) and we discussed at length the security situation within East Africa from both a historical and strategic perspective. He offered professional insight regarding the significance an opportunity such as the AFLI program would provide to my career and supported my reasoning for choosing Swahili.
What aspects of the program interested you? After having studied abroad with the Critical Language Scholarship in Luckow, India, I became aware that I wanted a program with a longer immersion opportunity and a more like-minded peer group. I knew that the AFLI program would surround me with people dedicated to government service and determined to act as student ambassadors abroad in order to further perpetuate a positive image of our nation as a whole. The combination of ten months of dedicated language study in correlation with a peer group that I know will prove invaluable in years to come are the two main factors that drew me towards the AFLI program.
Was your domestic study experience what you expected it to be? My domestic study experience met my general expectations for an intensive two month program whose general purpose was to provide the ground work necessary to function and progress overseas. I felt the amount of attention dedicated to cross-cultural awareness and language immersion was impressive considering the circumstances.
Tell me about your overseas study experience? Homestay/Living? My home-stay experience has been incredible and I have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly and sincerely I was accepted as a member within the family unit. A positive home-stay is absolutely essential for language development and I have personally found that I have been able to refine my Swahili most effectively within the familiar context of my home. It is far easier to leave your comfort zone within the security of a trusted host family and, for example, utilize new vocabulary than in a classroom full of your peers. I have personally established a very close relationship with my host mothers, (they are sisters who live together), and they have proven an invaluable resource not only for Swahili but also as strong, positive examples of proper conduct and decorum. They have made the transition into the community seamless and treat me as no less a part of their family as their own children. I have become so comfortable within the local community between work and school that we love to go out as a group on weekends to local restaurants to catch up and tell stories about people we are all familiar with. I will miss them greatly upon my return home but have every intention of returning as soon as feasible.
Courses? The coursework was demanding as is to be expected in any intensive language immersion but very manageable. The emphasis was placed on maximizing immersion whether in the form of host family interaction or even conversation with school staff. While a great deal of language development is dependent upon private study, the professors were always ready to provide assistance and the classes were predominately productive.
Internship? My internship at Nkoaranga Lutheran Hospital has been one of the most profound experiences I have encountered since leaving the military. The amazing work that is being done with such minimal equipment and even less funding is awe inspiring. One particular instance stands out in my mind after an especially grueling day and has opened my eyes to the medical field as a potential career path. As I sat next to the surgery table soaked in sweat from exertion and the Tanzanian summer heat, the young man whose leg we had just spent the last five hours mending awoke from anesthesia and said with tear laden eyes the words that have changed my entire life’s perspective; “Asante sana kaka, nashukuru kwa vitu vyote”, which in English translates to “Thank you very much brother, I appreciate everything”. He expressed his gratitude towards me for helping piece his leg back together with such heartfelt sincerity that I am seriously considering shifting my career objectives toward medicine. The ability to have such a profound and productive impact on someone in such desperate need has left an indelible mark upon my person.
What was the best part of your overall experience? The best part of my overall experience have been the moments I realize I am thinking in Swahili and that it is no longer a conscious effort to continuously cross translate but rather that it is developing into a learned means of communication. The excitement of being able to effectively communicate with someone without hesitation and enjoy a meaningful conversation in Swahili for the first time was a unique and memorable experience. To that effect, being able to speak with the patients at Nkoaranga Hospital and offer solace, advice, and being able to actively assist ares experiences that I feel will never be matched. The impact this internship has had on my personal growth let alone language development is difficult to articulate, but I know I have become a part of this community in a way I could have never imagined.
What are your plans for the future? My plans for the future include applying for graduate schools with a focus on continuing my foreign service within the federal government. I would like to continue my research regarding asymmetrical warfare and counter-insurgency from an anthropological standpoint. I am also considering applying to medical school in order to work for MSF, or Doctors Without Borders, and provide aid where it is so desperately needed. I am comfortable in areas of conflict and the time I have spent here has motivated me to assist to my full potential. In addition, I plan on advancing my Swahili education through private tutors and personal study in order to assist East Africa to the best of my abilities upon my return.
Would you suggest the African Flagship Languages Initiative program to other students? Why? I strongly recommend the AFLI program to other students due to three main factors; length and depth of immersion, the criticality of the AFLI mission, and the chance to expose yourself to options otherwise left unconsidered. Being able to study abroad for eight months gives students of any language ability the chance to become truly comfortable with the language and reinforce it daily in every imaginable context. I am by no means a strong foreign language learner, but I have succeeded beyond what I thought was possible in great part due to the length and breadth of my experience here. Secondly, the AFLI mission is undeniably applicable to not only the domestic security agenda, but that of the global community as a whole. Africa is a continent of amazing potential but remains incredibly vulnerable to forces who wish to revisit an era of manipulation and extortion. The visceral difference in interaction between a Westerner who knows no or little Swahili compared to my peers and I is drastic. We are immediately embraced and seen as a positive force in an area so willing to forgive misstep and so grateful to others who embrace their language and culture. They understand that we are not here as simple tourists but as individuals invested in their quality of life and the future of their nation. Cross-cultural awareness and language acquisition are the crux of effective foreign policy application. The issues that plague this part of the world can never be resolved unless the security threats are addressed first and a stable situation within which development can occur is fostered. The entirety of Maslow’s hierarchy is built on top of a firm foundation of security, and the AFLI program is a catalyst towards that end. Finally, I strongly recommend the AFLI program to any and all students in order to expose themselves to a part of the world that will transform them into more compassionate and effective global citizens. I never could have imagined the impact this experience would have on me and today I am a far different individual then when I first began my application those many months ago. I have found new purpose and the people I have encountered, shared meals with, and loved have provided me with a focus that will prove the keystone to the rest of my career and life no matter the direction.