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Swahili studies - in a doughnut shop?

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It's 9 p.m. on a Monday, and Voodoo Doughnuts - the all-night doughnut shop that stands on a corner in downtown Portland, Ore. - is looking like a classroom.

In one corner of the tiny store, eight people sit on wooden benches, eyes fixed on a small chalkboard displayed just under a listing of doughnut varieties.

The store won't open for business for another hour yet. But that doesn't bother these patrons. Their interest is not in pastry but in Swahili lessons.

Even as three women steadily churn out doughnuts at the deep fryer, instructor Abdi Muhina carefully chalks watoto awu (Swahili for "children") on his makeshift blackboard.

Moments before, Mr. Muhina, who is still in his teens, had passed around the room a book entitled "Songs and Stories from Uganda."

There are no grades, exams, or fees associated with this class. Students and teacher alike are drawn here simply by enthusiasm for Swahili.

Free Monday night Swahili lessons at Voodoo Doughnuts began in the fall of 2004 when Jay Rubin, a fryer at the doughnut shop who had studied Swahili while he was a student at Boston University, started offering lessons in the hour before the shop opened at 10 p.m.

When he gave up teaching last January, Muhina picked up where Mr. Rubin had left off.

Muhina, who was born in Tanzania and who grew up in Kenya, moved to the United States a year ago, where he is now enrolled in high school.

He hopes to attend a four-year college next fall and then go on to medical school to become a doctor. He plans to return to Africa eventually.

But for as long as he can during his tenure in the US, Muhina plans to continue offering free Swahili classes in the doughnut shop. His goal? To help spread knowledge of Swahili, the language he loves.

Each class Muhina teaches is a bit different, but all generally include grammar, skits, lectures, conversation, and storytelling in Swahili.

In addition to standard worksheets and textbooks, Muhina teaches his students to translate songs like "Don't Worry, Be Happy" from English to Swahili and to play "Swahopoly" (Swahili-ized Monopoly).

Recently, Muhina's students have also been writing letters to Swahili-speaking pen pals in Kenya. Receiving mail from their African penpals is a huge treat, they say. It's tangible proof that they can actually communicate in Swahili.


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