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You’ve heard of bad hair days? Sometimes, you can have a bad language day. You trip over your tongue and fumble for words until you can’t even make a coherent point in *English*, let alone whatever Bantu spinoff you’re trying to learn at the moment. These days tend to make for great stories – such as those recalled on the blog of my friend/language partner/linguistic savant Lorenzo. Since getting to site, I’ve managed to say “I was late today because it took me a long time to circumcise myself” (instead of “get myself ready,” which differs by one letter) and “I did not breastfeed your test result” (instead of “look at,” which differs by two letters.) My coworkers appreciate my attempts to use Kiswahili whenever possible instead of English, but that may be because it’s so freakin’ hilarious when I mess up.

And I’ll agree. It generally is.

Alternatively, sometimes, you have a really, really good language day, where an endless stream of words are just there for the plucking. Rather than thinking of a statement, translating it in your head, then saying it slowly, you think of it in the target language to begin with. Everything’s easy. You even manage wit. Those are the days that make all the flash cards, LPIs, and awkward stuttering worth it.

Today was one of those days. I was scheduled to have my first meeting with a local People Living With HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) group at a large health center some miles from my town. My presence there had been arranged by a local VCT counselor, but he was going to be at a seminar today, so after the local public health officer introduced me it was going to be Megan: The Solo Act. I spent half the night staring at the ceiling, wondering what to say, how to ask questions clearly but without being too direct, and ultimately deciding that rehearsing was a useless enterprise. I was at the dispensary all morning, so I didn’t have time to pull out my language notebook from training and study the phrases for “grassroots” or “sustainable income generating activities.” I was just going in cold.

And … it went fine. I introduced myself in Kiswahili, talked a little bit about my organization and its history, a little bit about what other volunteers do, and a little bit about the things I might be doing. I explained that today I was here to learn about the history and projects of their group, and then maybe in the future we could work to do sustainable capacity-building activities together (if you’re playing along with the Peace Corps Buzzword Drinking Game, that’s a double.) I reverted back to English a few times when I was talking about HIV/AIDS in America and when I lost the thread of how to talk about IGAs in Kiswahili, but I was able to understand questions they asked about me and immediately picked back up on the words when someone helped me translate. The woman who runs the group speaks some English, and when I saw her struggling to find the word for something, I was able to say ”What is it in Kiswahili? and almost always figure out exactly what she was getting at.

I’m not sure exactly in what capacity I’ll be working with them in the future, but I think today was a good start.

On the way home, my skills were tested again, but to slightly more comical effect. I boarded a matatu and handed the tout a fifty shilling note – but instead of giving me twenty back, he just pocketed it and moved on to the next person.

”Oi! Give me my change!” I chided.

He turned to me, wide-eyed, and said in Kiswahili, ”Check it out! The mzungu speaks Swahili!”

Every head in the matatu swiveled around and stared at me, in a look-a-talking-farm-animal sort of way.

“I try,” I said with a smile.

”You’re very pretty, lady,” he continued.


”Do you have a boyfriend?”

”No. I’m actually married. Sorry, bro.” The other passengers howled with laughter.

”Truth? Show me the ring!”

I held up my hand, revealing a delicate silver band I wear for just such occasions. More laughter, but he continued. Did I have kids? How old was I? How old was my husband? How big is he? How long had I been married? Finally, the mama next to me told him to knock it the heck off, he had disturbed me enough and CLEARLY I wasn’t interested. She then asked me where I had learned such excellent Swahili.

Language WIN.

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Yours truly