When I first moved to Zanzibar, I entertained elaborate fantasies of becoming fluent in Swahili in a matter of weeks, impressing all my fabulous new friends and colleagues with my superior intellect and skill at communicating in the local tongue. Of course, those fantasies also usually included a rakish, ruggedly tanned safari guide coming to whisk me away to a life of swashbuckling adventure. Six months in, I’m still waiting on both counts.
The language most people call Swahili is known as Kiswahili in Swahili (confused yet?).
It’s spoken by over 60 million people from Mozambique to northern Kenya. If you want to travel in East Africa (don’t mind if I do) this is the language to learn. Zanzibar is known as the birthplace of Kiswahili, and it is said that the purest form of the language is spoken here. The spread of the language coincides with the time of the archipelago’s years as a colonial-era trading powerhouse, spreading merchants along trade routes deep into the continent.
When I first arrived, I took a week of full time Kiswahili school to give me a leg up in Zanzibari life. I didn’t even master the greetings. Admittedly, greetings in Swahili are a significant task. Politeness and respect are paramount in Swahili culture, and cycling through at least a few (usually more) greetings is considered polite when passing someone on the street. The answer is always positive – you could be coughing up blood and the automatic response would still be nzuri (good) or poa (cool).
If the greetings alone were insurmountable, how was I supposed to master the lingua franca of East Africa in time to impress everyone with my prodigious language skills? I searched for sources –literary and human – to help me.
One phrasebook contained pickup lines for the randy tourist, such as “That was animalistic!” (Ilikuwa kama wanyama) and “It helps to have a sense of humour” (Husaidia kuweza kucheka). Imagine the night of passion that has you reaching for the phrasebook mid-coitus for one of those old chestnuts.
I tried learning from my colleagues. Some were okay, but my old school boss seems to think that loudly repeating words I don’t know and making me say them over and over is the best way for me to learn. I tried speaking with the friendly men in the street, but after I mastered “Sorry, I’m married,” our progress slowed.
Being from an English-speaking country is both a blessing and a curse. Canadians, Americans, Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans – we can travel the entire world and expect to get along reasonably well in our own language.
The curse, though, is that we never have to learn another language. I used to feel rather superior that I spoke both English and French. Imagine how quickly that little balloon popped when I met my first Dutch girl – tall, blonde, gorgeous, and you speak five languages? Eff this, I’m going back to the Arctic.
Now that I’m at the six-month mark, I get another round of classes. I’m hoping the next six months will see me improve to complete conversational fluency in time for my backpacking trip across the region.
I’ve started my courses at an intermediate level, and I’m feeling good about my skills in spite of some embarrassing moments, like the time I told our building guard that I had a bunch of underwear for him. Underwear in Kiswahili is chupi, what I was trying to say was chupa, bottles, for recycling. As the guard is already prone to languid winks and marriage proposals, he enjoyed my error far too much.
Or, the time I said mboo (penis) instead of mbuu (mosquito). “There are penises everywhere!”
I know that if I stick with it, learning Kiswahili will add another dimension to my travels throughout this region. It has already helped me travel in Tanzania and Rwanda, and has helped me gain insight and pick up some of the subtleties of Zanzibari culture.
Navigating another culture is a tricky business. If you’re spending a few weeks in a place, it’s easy to just enjoy the utter alien-ness of it all and soak in that fish out of water feeling. But the more time you spend in the place, the more you find yourself consciously and subconsciously wanting to belong, to understand things that seem inexplicable from the outside. Learning a language is more than just learning different words for things, it’s learning what’s important to other people and how they think.
In Zanzibar, saving face is crucial. Politeness, indirectness and avoiding conflict are key values of Zanzibari culture. One interesting form of communication in Zanzibari culture is the kanga. The kanga is a basic women’s garment, a rectangular piece of brightly patterned fabric carrying a small phrase or message along the bottom, worn as a skirt or wrap. It’s a way women express what they’re thinking in a nonverbal way. They send messages in other, more subtle ways. The kanga of the day is often chosen based on the message it’s sending – targeted kanga-wearing can be a method of communication itself. One of my favourite kanga sayings is “Msijifanye hamjui linalonikera“. A rough translation is “Don’t pretend you don’t know what annoys me”. Wearing this kanga is sending a clear message to someone – but in a roundabout way.
The differences in communication are more than just replacing words for words – it shows a lot about the values and organization of society. Of course, it would take years to actually “get” this stuff, but learning the language will help you made some headway.
Kiswahili is a language of nuance. Being North American, nuance isn’t really my thing. But I keep trying to pick up on the small but important differences. Little things can mean a lot here, both in the Swahili culture and the Kiswahili language. For example, kunywa (to drink) and kunya (to poop) are differentiated only by a subtle half-syllable lilt representing the double consonant – but miss it, and find yourself the butt (hehe) of the joke.