Missionary's Wish to Speak Swahili Again Granted
October 23, 2008
Missionary's wish to speak Swahili again granted
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LAKEWOOD – For the visitors from Tanzania, it was their native tongue. For a retired missionary, now in hospice care, those words meant the world.
Burt Banzhaf is thin and moves cautiously when he is out of his wheelchair. Pictures of him during his 48 years in Africa show an imposing man. His "native" name meant "A Tall Man Who Takes Big Steps Quickly."
"In those days, I could," Banzhaf said with a laugh.
At 81, his intellect and his humor are sharp. He insists newcomers learn a three-step African handshake and is quick to praise them for their handshake performance. But his mind is often elsewhere.
"I dream of Africa every night," he said.
His dreams, frequently in Swahili, are fueled by memories of his decades as a Christian missionary in Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
Since returning to the United States in 2002, he has longed to speak Swahili, the language that allowed him to spread his faith.
"I guess you could say that's my heart language," he said.
His terminal illness prevents him from returning to Africa, but on Wednesday, Banzhaf's home was filled with chatter familiar to his ears, foreign to many others. It was his heart language, Swahili.
Banzhaf had two visitors from Tanzania: Sarah Lazier, a hospice nurse, and Emmanuel Sella, a social worker.
Their program, Selian Lutheran Hospice in Arusha, Tanzania, works with The Denver Hospice, which is caring for Banzhaf in his final months.
The conversation between former missionary and his visitors dashed from English to Swahili and back again, at one point breaking into a favorite hymn.
"It is so wonderful to have you in my home," Banzhaf said.
Asked what it was like to hear and speak Swahili again, Banzhaf smiled softly.
"I'm home," he said.
The Denver Hospice partnered with the Tanzanian program in 2001 and Exempla Lutheran Hospice joined the effort in 2006.
The Selian Hospice serves 2,000 patients with a staff of just eight, including Lazier and Sella, and a volunteer staff of hundreds. More than half of Selian's patients are HIV positive and many of those also have tuberculosis.
Lazier and Sella will be speaking as the guests of honor at an event on Saturday at the Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library in Denver from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. The program, "Journey to Tanzania," is a celebration of the work of Selian Lutheran Hospice.
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