Alwiya Omar. Photo by Martin Boling


When Indiana University professor Alwiya Omar moved to Bloomington from Zanzibar, Tanzania, in 1987, she considered 70 degrees to be extremely cold weather. She arrived without her luggage, which had been sent to Bloomington, Illinois, by mistake. But the greatest difficulty was that she had left behind her husband and three children. Her youngest son was 4 months old. When she learned she was pregnant with him, she had already told IU she would enter its doctoral program and teach Swahili. She says she considered changing course, but her family told her no. “They wanted me to continue my education,” Omar says. “My mother said, ‘The sky is the limit. Go.’”

Even as a graduate student, Omar was a popular instructor—enrollment in Swahili grew to the point that IU asked her to find a second teacher. She recommended her husband, and so her family joined her in 1989. Omar says other graduate students and their families helped them acclimate. “My kids grew up having American aunts and uncles, grandma and grandpa, and we’re still in touch,” she says. “Without this community, it would have been tough.”

After earning her doctorate in second language acquisition in 1992, Omar taught at the universities of Georgia and Pennsylvania. She returned to IU in 2002, and today she coordinates its African Languages Program. At 68, she remains passionate about her work. She started a Swahili program for middle school and high school students at IU. Each semester, she takes her classes to a campus kitchen to make Tanzanian dishes. Twice a year, she returns to Zanzibar to teach linguistics at the state university there.

Omar and her first husband divorced in 2000; she remarried in 2012. Her two sons and their families live one block away from each other in Orlando, Florida. However, her daughter, Khadija Shariff, moved to Zanzibar four years ago to develop curricula for schools.

Omar is on the boards of Giving Back to Africa and Kilimanjaro Education Outreach and is active in Women Writing for (a) Change Bloomington. Seven years ago, she decided she could live without a car, and regularly walks an hour each way between home and work. She says staying busy keeps her young. But she does have plans to slow down: “I’d like to retire in 2020 and do more work with my nonprofits and also Women Writing for (a) Change—and keep up with friends.”