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My collection, courtesy of the US Government.

“To possess another language is to possess a second soul.”
— John le Carré

Ajabu.

ah-JAH-boo.

In Swahili, it means weird, or unusual, or astonishing. It’s a word I’ve used to describe my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, to describe the wonky dreams gifted to me by my antimalarials, and to summarize why things in my life sometimes work out perfectly against all sensible reason. It’s a good word. And, oddly enough, it’s a word I’ve heard more this week than I have since I started learning the language.

Usage One.
I boarded a matatu the other day and found myself sandwiched within a pack of hyenas giggling school children. There were more in the row of seats behind me. It was a longish ride, during which I shielded myself from their curious gaze by reading a slightly outdated copy of The Daily Nation newspaper I hadn’t had a chance to finish yet. They spoke openly about me – my clothes, my figure, my skin – without realizing that I could understand a word they were saying. I heard a rustling behind me, as though the kid was leaning far forward in their vinyl seat, and suddenly – YANK. My ponytail was pulled.

I turned, gave the row of kids a mildly irritated look, and went back to my newspaper. It was less than two minutes before – YANK. Harder this time. When I turned, they got a scolding glare. Clearly, the deterrent failed, because I soon heard the creak of vinyl once again; before they could reach me, I wheeled around and snapped (in Swahili) ”KNOCK IT OFF! That’s bad behavior!”

The look-a-talking-farm-animal look came over their faces and they sat with mouths gaping until one summoned the courage to respond ”But your hair! It’s so … weird!”

I know.

Usage Two.
Leaving Malindi after a USAID monthly review meeting, I was greeted by a tout who recognized me and called to me familiarly. “DADA WATAMU! HABARI YAKO?! HABARI ZA KAZI?! HABARI ZA MAISHA?!” he inquired at maximum volume as he good-naturedly shoved me into the waiting matatu. I did my best to answer as I half-crawled, half-stumbled to the back row. Two women in hijabs sitting in front of me put their heads together in a much more discrete version of the school girls’ conversation from the previous day. ”The mzungu understands Swahili? Is it true?” one queried. ”I think so,” the other replied contemplatively. ”Do you know any other mzungu who learn Swahili?”
“No. It is unusual.”
She paused. ”Ajabu sana.” Very unusual.
The other nodded before adding, ”Ajabu kabisa.” Completely unusual.

I smiled privately at her invocation of one of my most favorite Kiswahili words. But that rarity’s a pity, don’t you think?

Usage Three.
I grew up in Charleston, West Virginia, one of those parts of America where the expectation of the majority is still to live, wed, and die within a three county radius of where you were born. (And there’s nothing wrong with this – but it ain’t for me.) My best friend since I was knee high to a duck was a girl we’ll call R, who lived five houses down the street from me. We lost touch when I moved to Washington, DC following my parent’s divorce and I don’t know if I’d actually spoken to her more than once or twice since I was 15.

That is, up until last month, when she sent me a message on facebook to reconnect. She’s finished with university and is – for the moment, at least – an aspiring photojournalist based out of Nairobi. As in … Kenya. As in … a day’s busride from where I am. We made plans to meet up; I saw her briefly a few weeks ago as she sped up the Coast on an assignment, which was awesome. I was actually able to hang out with her more while I was in Mombasa this past weekend. We laughed and caught up and found ourselves wondering why we’d ever lost touch to begin with. She’s leaving Kenya soon to begin a graduate program in – what else? – African studies.

That kind of serendipity is … unexpected. Not impossible, of course, but in defiance of ready explanation.

Ni ajabu.

When reduced to three sentences, my Saturday sounds familiar to the point of banality: I ran errands. I cleaned my house. I comforted a friend. But nothing is quite that simple in Kenya (as so few things in my life in general are), so I now reserve the right to bore you with my example of what a semi-typical Peace Corps Saturday is like. At least, for now. Schedules here are about as fixed as the goo inside a lava lamp.

My day started at 7:30, as it usually does on weekends, to the Screaming Child Brigade making a rather impressive ruckus outside my window. I tried to go back to sleep, but as the din outside was rapidly increased by the addition of “90s Songs You Wish You Never Had To Hear Again: The Techno Remix” blasting from someone’s stereo, that plan didn’t work out. (Kenya: where old music comes to die.)

In the States, I had a clock radio that was set to wake me up on Saturdays in time to listen to Car Talk and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, so after brushing my teeth and making some milky tea, I wrapped myself in a leso, popped in my earbuds, and did my best to recreate this little slice of my pre-Peace Corps life. It’s nice to take a break sometime. I sketched out a list of all the things I had to do – post office, groceries, bank, Safaricom dealer – on the back of a newsletter and eventually made it out of the house before the day got *too* hot. Ish. Sort of. It may be winter, but I still wander around feeling as though I might swoon from the heat in true Southern lady fashion while my coworkers are wearing jackets and huddled together for warmth. It’s all relative.

I’m in the rare “peri-urban” Peace Corps post, so walking to town is no great hardship. A few kilometers to the farthest point I could conceivably want to go. Post office: nothing exciting to be found (WHERE ARE THE LETTERS YOU ALL ARE SUPPOSED TO SEND ME, HMMMMM?) Safaricom dealer: the woman at the desk was so delighted when I greeted her in Kiswahili that she immediately started trash-talking the trio of waifish Italian tourists standing two feet to my left. “They never even TRY,” she said gleefully as she handed me my new sim card. Bank: DAMN. ATM OUT OF ORDER. This would bring all the rest of my errands to a grinding, screeching halt. Luckily, I recalled seeing a sign for another one somewhere down the road … I set off in search of it and quickly landed myself in the tourist end of town. The signs were in Italian, every other building advertises safaris to Lamu (really?), and you can’t throw a stone without domino-ing down a row of sheds selling the same wooden giraffes and improbable paintings of Maasai walking along the beach. I ducked into a little café for breakfast (my usual favorite weekend spot is closed for Ramadan) only to discover that the cheapest item on the menu – a crepe with whipped cream – is over 400 shillings. WHAT KIND OF HELL IS THIS?! After wandering far too long, I discover that their ATM was also out of order, so I hightailed it the zillion miles back to my side of town. And gladly so. That place ain’t right.

After getting the monetary sitch figured out, I made it to the grocery store. No, not the market. If there IS a market, I haven’t found it yet – every time I ask my neighbors they look at me askance and say “Why? Can’t you find fresh produce at Mama Lucy’s Supermarket? That’s where I go.” Clearly, this is big city living at its most exciting. I created a minor scene arguing with a Kenyan teenager who was angry I wouldn’t buy him shit (“You’re a MZUNGU! You need to buy this for me!” he argued in Swahili) which I may blog about separately later, but overall, market run = overall success. I schlepped all my bags home in the sun by myself, but at least I was feeling active. The large pack of small children that roves through the bush around my building, which has finally stopped screaming “CIAO BELLA” at the top of their lungs when they see me (opting for “SHIKAMOO MAMA MZUNGU!” which is all kinds of adorable), surrounded me and offered to carry my bags. Which was a nice gesture. I think. Maybe. Or they wanted to run off with my eggs and laundry soap. Hard to tell for certain.

I spent the rest of the afternoon blasting Capital FM (when in Rome …), sweeping, mopping, and being sweaty. BUT MY HOUSE IS CLEAN AHAHAHAHAHA (sorry, really excited about that.) My life is made slightly easier by the fact that I invested in a proper mop, rather than relying on the “bucket and an old sweater” method that I never entirely got the hang of while living with my host family. It strains the back to be bent over that long. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Spare me the innuendo there.)

Around sunset, a coworker who lives nearby came over and asked to use my cell phone. She said the battery in hers wasn’t working, as evidenced by her test-charging it in my sitting room the day before to see if it was a problem with the phone or her wall socket. Whomever she was calling didn’t answer, so she handed it back, kicked off her shoes, and sank to the floor. She informed me that her sister had died the previous day, and she was trying to get in touch with her family to make arrangements.

I wasn’t sure what to say, partly because matatu smackdowns aside my Swahili is only decent-ish, and partly because what passes for supportive here is a little different from back home. Hired mourners aside, Kenya’s not a big “public show of grief” culture. Nor is it a “bear-hugs-and-sobbing-with-your-friends” culture. “Comfort yourself, dear” tells to be the refrain of even the most compassionate sympathizers. So I just slid down the wall and sat beside her, on the cement floor, in my empty sitting room, as she reclined silently with her face in her hands for a long while. I think that was the right thing, more or less. She seemed to appreciate it.

After she left, I made Weetabix and hardboiled eggs for dinner (what? I didn’t feel like cooking rice) and rewarded my long day with an episode of Firefly. I also text-skyped with some friends from America, which was simultaneously enormously restorative and a little hard. As much as I am pleased to be here, I do miss you guys. Oodles.

Tomorrow, I have an incredibly busy day. I’m meeting one-on-one with the district chairs of some major community service providers – major as in international, multi-million-dollar funds like USAID and AMREF. Slightly nervewracking, but I’m excited to be building those contacts. They could be extraordinarily useful. All in the name of turning in the best CNA possible and, of course, figuring out where I fit into this great humanitarian puzzle.

Until then … I think it’s time for some more Firefly.

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.

”Thanks.”

”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