So many mistakes to be made in Swahili where two words are only one letter apart, and the wrong one means something that you really don’t want to say! Like testicles instead of beer. Or to poop instead of to drink (and that was a double mistake on my part, because I meant to say to do and instead tried to say to drink). And the worst one, penis instead of mosquito (although it is true that I do not like mosquitoes)!
That last one, mbo vs. mbu, happened back in 2010 when I lived in Arusha, and left me afraid to talk about mosquitoes for years! I’d been taking Swahili lessons from the English teacher I volunteered for. I was making progress, or so I thought. I was staying at a local “serviced apartments” hotel, where the matriarch of the owner’s family spent the evenings drinking spiced, milky Swahili tea at a plastic table in the courtyard. A nice middle-aged Tanzanian couple, fellow guests who I’d become friendly with, encouraged me to join these evening sessions and speak only Swahili, in order to practice. Good idea!
One evening, I finished my tea and said good night. The husband, Peter, noted I’d left my room’s windows open, and asked, in Swahili, why. For fresh, cool air. But you need to be careful of mosquitoes.
That’s true, I replied. “Mimi sipendi mbo.” (I don’t like….) Note, above, that mbo does not mean mosquito. I was already aware of the dangerous similarity of these two words. The instant I spoke the wrong word, Peter’s face kind of twisted, and I realized what I’d said. He burst into laughter, and I slunk away into my room and closed the windows. Tisa called later, and I told him what I’d done. He burst into laughter before I even quite finished the telling. The next morning Peter was driving through the gate as I left on foot for my English teaching job. He rolled down the window and offered me a ride.
“I’m too embarrassed to get into your truck,” I said. But I did accept the ride, and went on to speak Swahili, full of mistakes, to many other Tanzanians. (And P.S. Peter was really his name.)
I avoided talking about mosquitoes from 2010 to 2017, except in English. But now, I am fully confident and able to use the word mbu in casual conversation. That’s because I recently completed the Swahili course at the KKKT Lutheran Junior Seminary School of Language in Morogoro.
It took me a few months, extended because I took a couple of breaks for things like leaving Tanzania and re-entering in order to get another 90 days on my visa. Normally, it takes two months. I ended up in a private class with my own teacher, because I walked into their office during a slow spell in which only a few students were there, and because I knew some Swahili already and wouldn’t be an exact match with other students.
My teacher, Wilson Mzuanda, was fantastic. He had unending, kind patience for the older student (me) repeating the exact same mistake four times in a row, while he repeated the correction. He also provided clear, in-depth explanations for many of my questions, which only the nerdiest of students would ask. Of course, sometimes there is no explanation for questions of language usage or culture, so we often fell back to quoting “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die.” And memorize. And repeat.
I did very well as a student. I scored well on the final exam. The 78.5% in the photo, Wilson tells me, is actually a good score. And I wrote a really cool essay on tourism in Tanzania! Also, I got 97% on the verbal test.
And still, I struggle to understand spoken Swahili. Sometimes I express myself well. Other times I totally botch whatever I’m trying to say. And I’m forgetting things even faster than I learned them. I should have done this when I was 22! Or maybe 8. Anyway, I’m still working on it.
It’s such a joy to walk up to a group of young men hanging around in front of a little store in the evening, to greet them in Swahili so they know not to mess with me, and to ask for soap for both bathing and doing laundry, and the whole transaction plays out how it’s supposed to.
Or to sit chatting in reception with the young woman who’s working at the hotel in Pangani in her three-month field placement from hotel management school, and understand that she’s telling me I have a generous heart and she feels like I’m a second mother. (Well, I’ve been in the hotel for awhile now, waiting for Tisa to come back from Tanga where he’s trying to get the car repaired.)
Or the other evening, when I sat on one of the beachside benches outside the hotel in Pangani where many locals hang around in the evening to enjoy the ocean breeze, and had a two-hour conversation with three men about American and Tanzanian politics, race relations in both countries, and a few other news topics. Okay, I didn’t really do all of that in Swahili! I greeted one guy in Swahili and made a few comments, then the two others came over, and when the topics got serious we jumped between Swahili and English and the first guy did some translating. But the initial Swahili on my part got the conversation started. I really enjoyed it and was so happy for ordinary, friendly interaction of the sort Tanzanians engage in all the time amongst themselves.
My own abilities and personality complicate things. If I’m tired or I haven’t eaten anything for a few hours, my brain slows waaayy down, and I can’t remember the simplest Swahili. Sometimes when I’m trying to retrieve a Swahili word from memory, the Spanish equivalent pops out. Or sometimes, even a Cebuano word. Cebuano is a language spoken in the southern Philippines, which I learned, not well, in 1982 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there. If you asked me the Cebuano word for almost anything, I couldn’t remember it on demand. But sometimes I suddenly remember a Cebuano word instead of the Swahili word I’m searching for.
And personality? Deep in the center of my being, I am an introvert and many social situations make me feel as if I am my awkward 13-year-old self hoping a boy will ask me to dance. (They almost never did.) I’ve masked this effectively as an adult, because I needed to be an extrovert to facilitate teams and present trainings and do all of those group activities during my career.
But many Tanzanians are so quick to make friends, and society here is so gregarious, that once I chat with someone, they come back and want to chat again. So, that’s good, right? It provides more practice and it’s nice that people want to be my friend. But if I’m tired and I can’t do the Swahili, I just want to sneak away and hide where nobody will talk to me. But, lucky for me and my quest to learn Swahili, that’s not much of an option here in Tanzania!
So…ninaendelea. I am continuing. I don’t know how to spell the long word that Tanzanians always say to me when I’m struggling. It means you’re doing great, you’re improving all the time! Ninajaribu! I am trying.