Africa in Our Lives: Rebecca Mandich

Whether she is sketching colorful wax-print dress designs, crafting handmade trilingual cardboard books, or acting in a Zanzibari television show, Rebecca Mandich (x’13) brings a creative and energetic spirit to everything she does.

Image of Rebecca Mandich
“Don’t be afraid to step away from Spanish or French and study less-commonly-taught languages!” –Rebecca Mandich
(Photo by Catherine A. Reiland/UW-Madison)

Major: African Languages and Literature, Certificates in African Studies and Global Health
Hometown: Green Bay, WI

What inspired you to study Swahili?

I spent the year after I graduated high school volunteering in Kenya, and when I returned to UW-Madison I decided to take an intro Swahili class for fun. I began learning Swahili with intentions to better communicate with some of my Kenyan friends; however, I excelled at my Swahili courses and decided to major in African Languages & Literature at the end of my freshman year.

What is your favorite Swahili word or phrase?

It’s really difficult to pick just one favorite Swahili word or phrase. “Hakuna Matata” is definitely one of my favorites purely because even non-Swahili speakers understand it thanks to the Lion King. However, many other people have pointed out that I say, “Penye nia pana njia” (Where there is a will there is a way) almost every day.


What would you tell students who are interested in majoring in African Languages and Literature?

I would absolutely recommend the African Languages and Literature major! Even if you aren’t considering being a teacher of African languages or literature, the major is flexible and a great compliment to another major. It will definitely make your resume stand out, and the small class sizes will enrich your college experience.

Tell us about your study abroad experience in Zanzibar

I studied abroad in Zanzibar, Tanzania, in a Swahili flagship program created by the American Councils for International Education and the Boren Scholarship. The semester I spent in Zanzibar was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It involved many hot sweaty hours in the classroom where we never spoke English; however, leaving the country fluent in Swahili made all of the work absolutely worth it. One of my favorite parts of my experience was my internship in fashion design and marketing at KIHAGA, a local tailoring and apparel business. I became very close with the owner, had the chance to design clothes made out of beautiful wax-printed cloth, and got to use my Swahili in a professional environment.

Image of Rebecca Mandich with host family.
Rebecca Mandich (BA’13) with her host family in Zanzibar. October, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Mandich)

What was one of the highlights?

I acted in a Zanzibari television show called Hussda (meaning jinx). I played the part of an American foreign investor from General Motors who was interested in investing in a local Tanzanian company.

Tell us about your cardboard books project. How did you get started?

I started the cardboard book research project through my work with Dr. Araceli Alonso and her Madison-bas

ed NGO Health by Motorbike. I worked with her in the past translating malaria research surveys and was planning to travel with her as a Swahili translator for her Summer 2012 global health field course in Kenya. Dr. Alonso helped connect me to Dr. Luis Madureira and Saylin Alvarez from the Department of Spanish and Portuguese who had started a cardboard book publishing company called Kutsemba Cartão in Mozambique. They were very interested in our idea of publishing some of the first cardboard books in Kenya. When I traveled with Dr. Alonso in 2012, I was inspired by Harold Scheub’s work and traveled around, recording folktales from several areas of Kenya. This past school year I have been working to transcribe the Swahili stories, translate them into English and collaborate with Saylin Alvarez to translate them into Spanish. We have just finished a trilingual East African folk tale collection, which Dr. Alonso will bring back to the Kenyan storytellers this summer.

Looking back, what were some valuable lessons you learned while at UW-Madison?

One of the biggest lessons I have learned at UW-Madison is to pursue opportunities that I am interested in and not be afraid to try new things even if I don’t feel 100% qualified or ready. It’s really easy to get lost in huge lecture halls and always assume that everyone else is more qualified or intelligent than I am. However, I have realized that I will never be able to grow into the woman I want to be if I don’t put those doubts aside and push myself to try things I may not think I am capable of.

Where is your favorite place to study?

Wisconsin Institute of Discovery near the waterfall.

Image of cardboard books crafted by Rebecca Mandich (BA'13)
Rebecca’s handcrafted cardboard books will be distributed in Kenya. (Photo by Catherine Reiland / UW-Madison)

What advice do you have for first-year students at UW-Madison?

Don’t be afraid to step away from Spanish or French and study less-commonly-taught languages! There are so many awesome career and scholarship opportunities for people who study languages like Arabic, Mandarin, Farsi and even Swahili! Not to mention it is an incredibly rewarding experience.

What are your next steps after graduation?

I will be working in Madison for the summer and then I am hoping to transition into a linguist position, teach Swahili, or pursue graduate studies in sociolinguistics.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

I could see myself teaching Swahili, traveling, working as a language analyst, translating or working for an NGO in East Africa.

UPDATE (05/29/2013. Rebecca Mandich accepted a position to be the resident director of the African Languages Initiative program in Zanzibar.

Profile produced by Catherine Reiland and Krista Duffy.

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