Swahili Lesson (Darasa wa Kiswahili) and Other Cultural Musings

Learning Swahili

If you are reading this blog consistently, it would be a disservice if I neglected what has become a huge part of our lives – the Swahili language.  Both inadvertently and purposefully, Swahili words have crept into our vocabulary.  This is not to say that we are speaking in Swahili, but rather we are using swahili words in place of their english counterparts in a normal (or not-so-normal) english conversation.  We speak Swahenglish.  Or maybe Engwahili.

For example, “Sweetie, can you ask the askari (guard) to maji (water – supposed to be a noun) the bustani (garden) for 1,000 shilingi (shillings)?”  Notice how all the Swahili words end in a vowel, specifically, the letter “i”?  As a rule, all Swahili words must end in a vowel and I think “i” (pronounced ē) is their favorite.  This knowledge comes in handy when you need to communicate with someone who knows limited English.  They may not understand what you are saying in English, but if you add and “i” to the end of an English word, it suddenly makes sense to them.  In months of Swahili class, no one ever told me this and I regret that it has taken me so long to figure it out on my own.

Allow me to illustrate:

[Me] – “Issa, will you text me before you come to pick up your paycheck?”

[Issa] – blank stare

[Me] – “Text, do you know the word text?”

[Issa] – blank stare

[Me] – “You know, on your phone, can you type words?”

[Issa] – “texti?”

[Me] – “Yes, texti!!!  Texti me before you come pick up your paycheck.”

The same strategy works for bill (billi), change (changi), fine (how are you today? i am fini.), and many, many other English words.  Of course, real Swahili words are quite fun on their own, like the time Issa told me that he wanted to get rid of the “doo doo.”  It was weeks later when I realized he was actually saying “dudu” which is Swahili for insect.  He was trying to get rid of the insects in the garden.  Eureka!  In the meantime, Matt was reminded to pick up after Rutledge in the yard.

Speaking of Rutledge, locals were having a hard time pronouncing his name, so we thought we’d use the “i” trick and rename him Rutsi.  Turns out, it’s the “r” that they have trouble with.  While the “r” is prominent in Swahili, it’s absent in many tribal languages, so a lot of folks pronounce it as “l.”  We gave up and now our family is Matti, Mary, Calolyn and Lutledge.

Talking on the Phone

After all this time, I am still shocked by the inability of two English-speakers to communicate on the phone when one is American and one is African.  We’ve all developed a great Swahili accent to help us through the most difficult of conversations, but even the best accents are useless on the phone.  I don’t know how much I can elaborate on this, except to show you how most of my phone conversations go:

[Tanzanian] -” Hallo?”

[Me] – “Hi, this is Mary.  I am wondering if I can drop my car off this evening for repair.”

[Tanzanian] – “Hallo?”

[Me] – “Yes, this is Mary.  I am wondering if I can drop my car off this evening for repair.”

[Tanzanian] – “Eh?”

[Me] – “Yes, can I drop my car off today?”

[Tanzanian] – “Eeeeeeh?”

[Me] – silence

[Tanzanian] – “Hallo, can you hear me?”

[Me] – “Ninahitaji kupata wewe gari.”

[Tanzanian] – “Eh?”

…at which point I usually hang up.

Asking for Directions

Finding a place you’ve never been before can be quite distressing.  Few roads are marked.  Maps are often inaccurate.  Drivers are crazy and generally, you can’t afford to be milling about aimlessly.  The first time I asked for directions from a local, I was young and naive.  I thought surely, despite the vagueness, the landmarks would make sense once I got there.  These were my instructions:

Go down Rose Garden Rd.  When you get to the curve in the road, you will see a big sign.  Turn onto the dirt road there.  Call when you get close and my guard will come out and wave.  

What actually happened is that I went down Rose Garden from the wrong direction.  There were numerous curves, numerous big signs, an incalculable number of unpaved roads.  The guard was nowhere to be seen, mostly because the destination was located off a dirt road, off another dirt road, off another dirt road, off Rose Garden.  But I guess those details didn’t seem important to the direction-giver.

You can imagine my skepticism when I got these directions via email:

You are welcome to MUHAS which is located off the United Nations Road Upanga area, close to the BROWN highrise building indicating TSN Supermarket – Opening soon. You will come across the light=green building – Multipurpose Laboratory Building That runs parallel with another: a one story building that is white yellowish. Behind this white -yellowish building you will see a garden and several pathways and a small hut as if there is a generator inside; (this is of no interest – for directions only) of interest is a building white walls for the ground floor and darkbrown first floor with green roof. This is where the office of the Dean’s is located close to the spiral stairs.

To my surprise, every detail unfolded exactly as described.  There was another eureka moment when I saw the small hut (as if there is a generator inside).  Then, around the corner, I spied the spiral staircase and I knew I would arrive at my destination.  It was an event that restored my faith in cross-cultural communications.

Now, to extend a gesture of sincerity, I have devoted myself again to learning Swahili.  Nitajaribu kujifunza kiswahili tena kwasubabu msichana nyumbani hawezi kusema kiingereza (I will try to learn swahili again because my babysitter is not able to speak english).