Since I came to East Africa I have tried to master the main language used here – Swahili. I may be an English teacher but that does not make me good with languages (OK hopefully it makes me good with English!). After all these years I am still not fluent in Swahili, but I have come to discover the beauty and the humour in this amazing language. I thought I’d share a few of the best of my language anecdotes with you this week.
As a very quick bit of background, Swahili is a Bantu (African) language which also borrows from other influential languages such as Persian, Arabic and English – caki, fridgi, lifti are all words we know well, just without the ‘i’. In fact, a good rule for Swahili is if you don’t know the word, say it in English and just an ‘i’. It’s amazing how often it works. I once spent at least five minutes explaining that I had lost my music stand, miming the way it extends from a small folded piece of metal, explaining in disjointed Swahili that I use it for singing, it’s to help me see the music, blah blah. After all that the lady who works in our house simply said “Ah, standi”! Humiliating! She must have done impressions of me to her family that night after work, bet they were wetting themselves!
OK, so here’s l’il ol’ me with nothing but a French GCSE to qualify me in my language adventure (completely useless in this instance, by the way) and I try to have a go. People here are brilliant about letting you try out their language and massacre it – if they can get the gist of what you’re on about they will go along with it and even smile and congratulate you on your efforts. Buoyed by their encouragement I ordered a bottle of beer in my first year in Kenya “Chupi ya Tusker, asante” I announced loudly across the bar. The waitress collapsed in hysterics… I had just ordered Tusker pants. Chupa is bottle, chupi is nickers!
There are several very close sounding words that can land you in trouble. I once had a very confusing conversation that went like this:
“Una olewa?” says a guy at the bar. (Are you married?)
“Hapana, nina sio lewa?” I respond (probably terrible grammar but basically I said ‘no I’m not drunk’) He laughed.
“Una elewa?” Then I understood that I had misinterpreted. (Do you understand?)
The language is so subtle that a one letter difference can indicate several things, including a change of tense, a change to the negative or a total change of meaning. In the case above ‘married’, ‘drunk’ and ‘understand’, three very different meanings, are just one letter apart!
Having said that, the language is actually very simple in many ways. It does not have endless tenses, relying largely on one future tense for example (a fascinating reflection of the culture’s lack of forward planning, living in the present is actually a very positive part of living here in many ways) and barely using the conditional (if) at all. It also makes more complex words out of simple ones so the overall vocabulary is far smaller than that of the English language.
For example moja means one. This word is used in all sorts of ways to create other words.
Pamoja = as one = together.
Moja con moja = one by one = straight ahead (one foot in front of the other)
Maramoja = at once = immediately
Saamoja = the first hour (which is 7am – remember from my Africa Time TIA Tale?)
As a result of this simplicity there are some beautiful descriptions for words we have in English. Take ‘airport’ for example. There is no direct translation , so words to describe it have been combined. In Swahili it is ‘Uwanja wa ndege’ which translates directly to ‘playing field for birds’ or better ‘place where the (metal) birds play’. Love it!
Spelling in Swahili is kind of a fluid affair, although during colonial times there was a drive to unify the many versions of grammar, word choice and spellings, the idiosyncracies have remained and are very endearing. Spelling is generally phonetic and all letters are pronounced. Of course, that does make spelling in English quite comical on occasion. My car, for example, is known as Pheobe. When I checked it in to the garage she was recorded, not by her number plate (yay Tanzania!) but as Fibi! Some of my favourite mis-spellings include:
- A little electrical shop titled ‘the erectronics hut’
- The Exacutive Hotel
- Lubricants (won’t spell this one out, but the a was a u!) If you’re shocked now, try seeing it in giant red capital letters!
Actually, a big problem here for those speaking English, is the confusion between ‘l’ and ‘r’. It comes from one of the tribes and many many people struggle with it in reading and general speech. So much so, in fact, that one town near by has a sign saying Ramadi on the way in and Lamadi on the way out – no one knows which is right!
Oh, and there’s another one. ‘Right’ becomes ‘light’. My friend, Kate, and I used to have a gym instructor who had us in stitches as he called instructions from the front of the class – “Good radies, and reft… and light!”
But perhaps most famous of all was a safari guide who excitedly pointed out “Rook, a lhino in the rong glass!” That took some translation!
In Kenya, Swahili and English are the joint national languages and everyone has a pretty good grasp of English. In Tanzania this is not the case and many people really don’t understand much English at all.
A favourite example is this: Whilst on safari last Christmas it was my brother-in-law-to-be’s (Oli’s) birthday and at the hotel in the Serengeti we had ordered a fudge cake for him. We’d emailed our request prior to arrival and received a very positive email back saying that it would be no problem.
So, after an incredible day game watching on Oli’s birthday, we’d headed back for dinner. Having stuffed ourselves at the buffet, the waitress beckoned us excitedly towards a cake tin – she wanted us to inspected it before she presented it to the birthday boy.
“Did we spell it right?” she asked, genuinely proud of her work. As my gaze moved towards the cake I remember thinking ‘this is good service, I guess they could have spelled Oli with a y or something…’, it was a slow motion moment, I finally read the icing. It said: ‘Happy Birthday Fudge’!…
“Yeees, you spelled it right” we agreed before collapsing into fits of giggles. It wasn’t even fudge cake. No one in the hotel had any idea what fudge was, but they didn’t like to ask!
And finally…people wear all sorts of clothes here, a real mish-mash. Many of the clothes come from Oxfam-type charitable imports and are then sold in little huts at second-hand prices. Why am I telling you this? Well, I have one last image to leave you with, that shows how important it is to speak the language you are surrounded by, or in this case, wearing… I spotted one poor guy wearing a pink t-shirt featuring the words ‘I can’t even think straight let alone be straight!’ Now, don’t get me wrong, no problem if you are wearing it to make a statement in the Western world, but in a country where being gay is actually illegal (yes, I know, let’s not go there) I can pretty much guarantee that was a statement he hadn’t intended to make!
I will post a TIA Tales update in the next couple of days as usual, but just to keep things different, I’m posting a photo selection for today. These are just a few of the shots from the recent mammoth trip I took with my brother and our friend Nick (aka Coops). Watch out for the full story in two parts in Destination magazine March and April issues! Please do post a comment and/or let me know which ones you like best.
To view the images bigger just click on one and then you can navigate backwards and forwards from there.
Huge thanks to all those of you who’ve signed up to follow this blog. If you haven’t already then look to the right, there’s a box where you complete your email address and then just click ‘follow’ underneath it.
Since I last posted, I have been jumping through a series of insanely designed hoops in order to get my new photo ID driving license. Most people just bought their last one, without the guy who issued it ever seeing their face. Now, they’ve changed the rules.
Good, I thought when I first heard this, perhaps it will improve the situation on the road. I had clearly not understood, at this stage, what the new system would be…
Let me tell you a thing or two about driving in Tanzania. First of all, all the rules are… flexible. Second, no one really knows what the rules are. At least, there does not appear to be a book anywhere where they are recorded. If there is, no one’s ever seen it!
The traffic lights are a great example. About three years ago a brand new set of traffic lights were put up in the centre of Mwanza on a major cross road. It was our first set of traffic lights.
For weeks people came to visit to watch the light change colour! Initially the lights were not connected to a generator, so every time the power failed in town then they did too, so that caused further confusion! But, a policeman was put on duty to direct the traffic until the drivers got used to what the lights meant.
Anyway, three years on, you’d think it’s all sorted, right? Except it really isn’t. To start with the red light shows for almost five full minutes so the traffic builds and builds and the street kids use you as begging targets, but also the red light gets sort of ‘interpreted’ as a give way sign because people become so impatient. And as for bikes, well they don’t think it applies to them at all and no one has corrected them. Am I talking push bikes? No, not only. Here small motor bikes, known as piki pikis, are used as taxis (sometimes with as many as four people squeezed on) and they just fly on through!
Now, why is this? I found myself wondering, and quickly surmised that there is a two pronged attack on our road safety here!
Basically, it all starts with learning to drive (prong one!). As I mentioned, just a few years ago most people didn’t even bother with learning, they simply bought a license. Those that did take a test did so using a tonka toy car on a two-dimensional map of the town! The pushed the car around, saying things like ‘checking mirrors’ or ‘changing gear’ as they did so. One guy who was told he had failed asked the police officer doing the test why this was, and his answer?
“You didn’t indicate,” he was told as the officer wiggled his pinky (that, apparently, is right, thumb wiggle for left!). There was also a theory test which included questions like ‘if you want to stop, what do you use?’
Over the past four years I have seen more and more driving schools pop up. Initially there were small trucks loaded with people who shared the lesson, each taking a few minutes behind the wheel – after ten lessons you had maybe managed an hour behind the wheel and could take your test! Now there are far more one-to-one teachers and vehicles available, which is good, but even these learners are not taught to use their indicators (maybe we should go back to the tonka toy!).
One friend of mine paid for someone she knew to have lessons and get her test. The girls would come home from each lesson very excited and wanting to practice, until finally she took her test, which she passed. My friend then decided it must be safe to go for a drive with her to celebrate. During their drive they took a wrong turn. “No problem, just turn around,” she said jauntily.
“Oh!” responded the girl, looking concerned. “But I have not done reversing.”
OK so driver capabilities are not great. But I mentioned a two pronged attack… so the second? I’d say it’s the, hmmm how can I group this…? road management, shall we say, or lack thereof, which also leaves a lot to be desired.
When I say roads I am talking in general terms here – many of us live on roads that are washed away twice a year, and I mean COMPLETELY. Currently my road has a pot hole so large I could lose my car in it and no taxi will drive up! Another friend of mine was driving along when the road collapsed from under her and her car actually did go into the hole!
There are also women that sweep the dust off the main tarmac roads. They wear luminous waistcoats and builders hats and stand along the edge with their brooms – I’m telling you it is absolutely lethal. You turn a corner and there they are, in the middle of the road!
Oh, and that’s not all that’s in the road – children, goats, chickens, daladalas (insane people carriers with slogans like ‘in God we trust’ – you’d have to ‘cos no one trusts the driver – that tear around the town not using any indicators, just pulling in or out whenever they want to collect or drop of someone wherever they feel like it), pikipikis (the motorbike taxis I mentioned), men dragging cart loads of fruits or piled up mattresses which block your view, and the occasional herd of cows. Oh and all the roads that are being built now, have been brilliantly designed to save costs – with no pavements.
Not crazy enough? Try adding a zebra crossing on the main road immediately off the roundabout (a zebra crossing which incidentally no one seems to know how to use!). Stopping for a pedestrian would basically guarantee a crash.
During my time here I have seen a cow being shoved into the boot of a car, a donkey strapped to the back of a motorbike, a man with his entire shop (yes, I mean the building and contents) on a cart which he was dragging where the cow or donkey should be, a woman staggering into the road under the weight of a Singer sewing machine on her head (do you know how heavy those things are!) and endless examples of 12 people in a car or 30+ in a people carrier. Do any of these people get stopped by police? … Nope.
I could of course share some astounding police stories here as part of my ‘road management’ theme, but I’d rather stay in the country for now, so I’ll save those for another time!
Suffice to say, as you may have gathered, it is absolute mayhem. But it makes for some great pub chat every now again!
Anyway… You’ll be glad to know I got my new license today – it only took six visits to the TRA offices, two lots of finger prints, eight photos, three signatures, two trips to the police station, one ‘thank you’ payment, a trip to the bank to make the official payment, and a very patient taxi driver. Easy!
I’d love to meet the guy who designed this system and thought it was a good idea – they actually made a flow chart of the steps required… it’s A3 and the font is small! People have been fired for taking too much time off work to get their license.
So, that’s the theme for the week –Please do post some of your outrageous road experiences in response. I know all of you who live in Africa will have a wealth of them to share, but I’m sure there are good ones from the rest of the world too (I do remember laughing at an elephant stuck in four lane traffic jam in Bangkok), so come on – share!
Thanks for reading. Until next week x