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For Pitt professor of Swahili, language opens door to world

For Leonora Anyango-Kivuva, language is more than just words on paper.

It’s the door that can open new cultures, countries and experiences, or the one that can shut on anyone in a strange land.

“I want to use languages to empower others because it is very difficult to negotiate your way if you don’t know the language. Language is power,” said Kivuva, 42, of Stanton Heights.

Kivuva, a native of Kenya, came to Pittsburgh a decade ago with her husband, Joshua, and three small children. The national language in Kenya is Kiswahili, commonly known as Swahili, but the “official language” is English, and that is what is spoken in schools, Kivuva said. Her oldest daughter, who was 7 when they arrived here, spoke English. Her younger daughter and son did not.

Kivuva’s husband brought the family here so the two of them could attend the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. She obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Kenyatta University in Kenya and earned a Ph.D. from Pitt in Social and Comparative Analysis in Education.

She teaches Swahili at Pitt, and she wants to help students achieve a global view.

“With Leonora, it’s not just about learning the language, it’s about the culture, too,” said Claude Mauck, director of Pitt’s Center for Less Commonly Taught Languages. “She encourages them to get involved with the Swahili-speaking population here in Pittsburgh and to travel abroad.”

One of her students, Wendi Bandi, 21, of Oakland considers Kivuva her “mom at school.” She has taken Swahili from Kivuva for three years and, with her support, traveled to Kenya this summer to work in local villages.

“I don’t know any other professor who has the kind of impact on students that Leonora does,” said Bandi, an Africana Studies and International Relations major. “She truly cares, and she has so many resources and contacts all over the world.”

Not long after moving here, Kivuva decided to use her love of languages — she speaks several Kenyan dialects and is fluent in English, Swahili and Japanese — to help others who come after her.

She works with Somali/Bantu and Burundi refugees in Pittsburgh, many of whom live in Lawrenceville and Prospect Park. She helps them translate their mail and navigate the school systems.

“I want to help them become independent so they can be successful,” Kivuva said.

On Sundays she can be found at Cornerstone Church in West View, where she teaches a class to help refugees assimilate into American culture.

Kivuva and her family frequently return to Kenya, and she said she is trying to raise daughters Stacy, 17, and Meg, 10, and son Victor, 13, as “global citizens.”

Her husband Joseph was in Pittsburgh as a Fulbright Scholar and returned to Kenya a little more than two years ago to work as a professor at the University of Nairobi, leaving her to raise the children mainly on her own.

“I don’t know anybody who does as much as she does for other people, but to do all that and have three kids on top of it is amazing,” said Terri Glueck of Squirrel Hill.

Glueck’s daughter, Katia, 18, fell ill and was struggling to keep up with her Japanese studies at Allderdice High School a few years ago when Kivuva signed on as her tutor.

“Having Leonora come into our lives was like a Godsend,” Glueck said. “We needed her for reasons we didn’t even know at the time. She is such a positive life force for others and she makes you feel like you can do it, you can overcome obstacles and she’ll be behind you all the way.”


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