10 on the 10th, Learning more than a language

IMG_4314Nate and I have just finished phase 1, six weeks of intensive Swahili study. We will continue with phase 2 starting next week. We were encouraged when we began our language study that time spent learning language is never wasted. While we came to Africa to serve at the hospital, learning the language to better communicate with the people is essential. The cool thing about learning a new language using a native language helper is that we not only learn the meaning and pronunciation of the words. We also, throughout the course of spending time with her day after day, have learned so much from our teacher and the other Kenyans in our life about their culture that is so different from our own. So without further ado, here’s this month’s ten on the tenth of some things I’ve learned while learning language.

1. Pole (Po-lay). {Sorry} It only took one day to realize that Kenyans say “sorry” a lot. I spill milk. Abigail says, “Pole.” I trip and fall. Abigail says, “Pole.” I forget my keys and get locked out….you get the picture. Even Natalie noticed this difference in our ways of communicating when she came home one day and asked me why Kenyans say sorry all the time? At first I kept thinking they thought they were to blame for what had happened and I was feeling awful all the time saying, “Oh it’s okay”  or “You didn’t do that, that was my fault.” I finally figured out that what they’re saying is “Sorry that happened to you.” I should’ve known they weren’t assigning blame. I’d learned in my cultural training that when, for instance, a cup is dropped and breaks, a Kenyan will say, “The cup broke.” Never, “I broke the cup” or “He broke the cup.” There’s just no blame. It goes into a much deeper difference stemming from their shame vs. guilt culture, of which I am learning a lot. I’ve even found myself already changing over to their ways of thinking a bit. Beckett spills something, and I immediately want to say “Buddy, you have to be careful. Then you won’t spill it.” Instead of speaking, I actually pause to think about the context in which I live and try to not place blame. Sometimes I even hear my own voice saying, “Pole.” After all, he didn’t spill that juice….the juice just spilt. {Please note: this is one meager example and I am a huge, slow cultural work-in-progress.} Which reminds me. “Pole” means sorry and “pole pole” means slowly. Yes, I wish my brain was 20 years younger.
2. Hodi. Karibu. (Ho-dee. Care-ee-boo). {Hodi. Welcome.} As I began writing out this list, I realized that “hodi” is the first word I know in Swahili that I don’t back-translate into English, which I’ve heard is the goal of language learning. I’d like to say I’m just that good at learning a language, but the reality of my non-back-translation is that it doesn’t really translate. When you enter a home, usually entering as you knock on an open door because doors are almost always left open, you simultaneously say “Hodi.” It’s as if to say, “I’m here” or “hello” or “anybody home?” The flip side is that at all hours of the day, when I’m in my own home, I hear a Hodi here and a hodi there as a variety of people come up to our door.  What I’ve learned about the people and their culture is that Kenyans are some of the most welcoming people on the planet. They are generally happy we are here and almost instantly want to  know how we are finding Kenya. They expect us to be as welcoming as they, so stopping in is no problem. Anyone that knows me, I hope, would know that this is something I enjoy. Sure, it may interrupt my regularly scheduled day of cooking, doing dishes and cooking some more. But, getting to know people is a joy. One other interesting fact, karibu can be used to say “Welcome to our home” {karibu nyumbani}, “you are welcome to sit here,” {caribou kiti} “have a cup of chai,”[karibu chai} etc.” It is also used to say, “You’re welcome” after someone states their gratitude.
chai23. Chai. {Tea} There’s black chai, white chai, mzungu chai, and of course I’ve introduced cold, icy, sweet southern “chai”.  Sadly, for me, there is no such thing as an iced soy chai latte a la Starbucks in Africa. Kenyan chai is actually black tea with milk and sugar. Every day we have chai time around 10am. Everyone does. It’s a 15 minute break from working to sit, have a small snack, chat with friends, and of course, drink chai. This tradition is just another reminder for me of the importance of relationship building in Africa. Chai isn’t just about getting out every tea cup you own and sharing your snacks. It’s about slowing down and sharing your life with each other. I love this new addition to our daily routine…and the snacks.
4. Mzuri sana (mm-zur-ee sauna) {very good}. Again, this could have a variety of literal translations, but it’s basically a positive response to a common greeting of something like, “How’s it going?”  When we asked our language helper how to respond if you’re not having a great day, she sucked her teeth, shook her head and said, “There is nothing. You can just say mzuri, but there is no way to say that.” After talking it through for a while, we came to the conclusion that there are simply no negative responses. After just a couple months of living here, I’ve realized that all the Kenyans I’ve met really don’t complain. I guess that’s why they only have a positive response. Here’s to saying “mzuri sana” and meaning it!

How it SHOULD read.

 5. Saa (saaaah) {hour, clock or watch}. Because Africans typically don’t have the same obsession with time as us western folks, it makes perfect sense that their clock would be the complete opposite of the clock we use. Sure, it’s the same clock, with the numbers in the same places, big hand, little hand, all that. However, when it’s 3 o’clock,  you don’t say “it’s three.” You say, “it’s nine.” You say it in Swahili of course,  but you say the word for nine and the little hand is obviously pointing to the 3.The explanation? They start their day at 7am, so that’s hour 1. Eight is hour 2, etc. It makes perfect sense to them, and with a lot of practice it’s starting to at least be recongizable to me. What can we learn from this? The sun is up at 7, so we start the day at 7. Praise the Lord it’s not up at 5, er, um I mean, kumi na moja (11).
roses6. Maua (ma-oo-ah). {flowers} Roses are beautiful and cheap here. For 300 shillings (less than $3) I can buy 20 fresh-picked roses. And if that’s not good enough, that price includes a delivery fee because they’re delivered straight to my door. Steven is the “florist” in town. He carries a bag on his back full of colorful rose bunches. A couple days before my Mom arrived, I told Steven I’d like to get some flowers for her. A week later, after she’d arrived, he came back by to make sure she’d made it, to see if she liked the flowers and, of course, to see if we needed more. He asked if he could meet her and greet her and see how she was liking Kijabe. Again, such a welcoming, friendly place. I do love living the small town life.
7. Siku ya kuzaliwa. Jifungua. (Seeku yah koo-zoo-lee-wah. Gee-foon-goo-uh) {Birthday. To be opened.} It is completely normal in language study to learn the word for birthday. It gets a little more interesting when one of your fellow language learners is an Ob/Gyn. I won’t belabor how we got to this point, but it is interesting to know that when a Kenyan woman tells you she had a baby, she tells you literally, “I have been opened, or untied.” They also say, “I got a baby,” instead of “I had a baby.” I have a feeling no further explanation is needed, so I’ll just leave it at that. We also learned the word for “push” early on, sukuma, also because of our beloved OB.
8. Ibaraki (ee-bah-ree-kee). {bless} One of the very first things our language helper wanted us to learn was how to pray. We learned a short prayer that included a blessing. Prayer is still a huge part of this culture, as is blessing others through one’s prayers. It spoke volumes to me that this was one of the first things we were to learn. In Senegal, one of the first things I learned, to the best of my recollection, was “alhamdoulallah,” or praise Allah. Much like life back in the States, things can be very different, yet strangely similar from one coast to another.
9. Kunia. Kunywa. (koon-ee-uh. koon-yu-wah) {Poop. Drink.} These words are off by one sound, making for some accidental sentences and interesting conversations about bodily functions. We’ve learned more than we ever dreamed about how to ask to use the restroom, how toilets have changed over the years and much more that shouldn’t be repeated in a respectable lady’s blog post.
10. To our teacher’s knowledge (and according to google translate) there are no Swahili words for broccoli, strawberry or cheese. When there’s not a word for it, you almost automatically can deduce two things: 1)They don’t eat it, thus 2) If you want to eat it, you will pay a higher price than if you choose to eat the things Kenyans eat.
IMG_2088And here’s a little more language food for thought:
Ndege is the Swahili word meaning both bird and/or airplane. My clever husband deduced from this info that the word for Superman must also be Ndege. “It’s an ndege, it’s an ndege, it’s Ndege!” You may have to be married to the guy to fully appreciate it, but his original telling of this great revelation, and the satisfied grin accompanying the explanation, are what make life with my quiet, misunderstood husband so mysteriously fun.
Kifaru means rhino or tank.IMG_1977
Tako (pronounced taco) means derrière, or butt for my non french-speaking friends. The best part: Our kids call Nate’s big brother Uncle Taco, so now he’s Uncle Butt! You can bet your bottom dollar little brother Nate has had a few good laughs over that one. And tako yako, well, that means your butt. See, now isn’t language learning fun?!