Of Witch Doctors, Rambutans, and What News of Waking Up?

by Karen Berger

From Virtuoso’s Travel and Life Magazine

In Zanzibar, Karen Berger learns that learning about language means learning about life. (Click here for  the PDF version, slower-loading.)

“Leo ni…” asks Mr. Farouk. “Leo ni jumapili,” we recite. Today is Monday.

Day, date, year, place: Slowly, laboriously, we assemble words and numbers to place ourselves in the space-time continuum: We are on the continent of Africa in the current millennium. When we get it right, Mr. Farouk beams, the laugh lines around his eyes creasing upwards to his fez.

My husband and I are enrolled in a one-month course at Zanzibar’s Institute for Swahili and Foreign Languages. To someone who has not entered a classroom in eighteen years, the setting is distantly familiar: cramped desks, assignments tacked to the wall, a chalkboard containing a carefully written plan for the day. But it is also distinctly different. Overhead, a languorous fan stirs the sultry, pre-monsoonal air. Outside, students roam the courtyard, the women shrouded in head-to-toe black robes, untouchable as shadows.

Dan, a historian, is learning Swahili because he plans to visit remote archaeological sites where people are unlikely to speak English. I’m tagging along because I like the idea of saying I speak Swahili. We’ve been told it’s an easy language.

I beg to differ.

Exhibit A: Saying hello. The word you’ve probably heard – Jambo – is a simplification used by visitors. A real Swahili greeting involves double negatives: “Is nothing the matter?” “No, nothing is the matter.” Except if you’re talking to your elders; then, you say something that roughly translates as “I hold your feet, old person.” (You’re not actually expected to make good on the offer, but they always reply, “I am delighted.”)

A language that requires all that just to say hello is not, by my definition, easy.

Ali, the manager at our guest-house, is trying to help. At least, that’s what I think he’s doing. Dan thinks he’s trying to confuse us. “What news of the day? “ Ali demands whenever we pas his desk. “What news of the morning? Your health? Your journey? What news of the classroom? Of walking around?” It’s like a game of tennis. Ali serves up words, we hit them back, gaining confidence until his coup de grace – inevitably, something like “What news of waking up?” – sends us stuttering into silence.

Two weeks into the course, the monsoon is in full force, the streets awash in torrents of water. In class, we have moved from basic tourist survival (“There are insects in my room”) to Swahili culture. To introduce the subject of jobs, Mr. Farouk acts out the words for farmer, fisherman, translator, and witch doctor in what looks like a Swahili version of charades. (He does not, I notice, act out words for accountant, consultant, or corporate executive.) But it is in the chapter called women’s work that Mr. Farouk’s theatrical talents really shine: In addition to words for cooking, cleaning, and children — the common lexicon of women everywhere – we learn words for carrying firewood, collecting seaweed, making rope, and tending vegetables.

We also learn about families. Mr. Farouk has four children. He tells us that his marriage was arranged by his parents. He thinks it has worked out well. Today, young people have begun choosing their own mates — like in America, he says. The idea intrigues him, like everything American.

“How many people live in an American house?” he wants to know. We struggle to explain (in Swahili, of course) that “one family” usually means parents and children, not mothers-in-law, stray siblings, and an unattached cousin or two. “And everybody has a car?” he asks. He has heard of machines that wash clothes and dishes; he is not sure he can imagine them. He is surprised that we have donkeys in America, and asks what kind of work they do. He asks what kinds of wild animals we have; when I describe mountain goats, he laughs at the idea of a goat on a mountain.

Comparing our lives intrigues us; comparing our foods delights us. Mr. Farouk isn’t going to let us squeak by with “fish” and “fruit,” so I fill my notebook with words like kingfish, tuna, bluefish, shark; nine types of bananas, as well as mango, papaya, coconut, sugar cane, and rambutan (which to be honest wasn’t even in my English vocabulary). And spices, too: Zanzibar was once the world’s largest supplier of cloves and a multi-cultural trading center, which is why so many Swahili words come from other languages. I add peppers, cinnamon, cardamom, and curry to my list.

As a sort of final exam, we go to the local market. At each stall, fruits and vegetables are arranged in bright pyramids of color. It is impossible not to admire them.

“No, no,” Mr. Farouk scolds. “Not ‘very good.’ Never say ‘nzuri sana.’” He scrunches his face into an elaborate frown and regards a pile of papayas as if he expects them to rot right on the spot. The merchants watch the performance, impassive. “They mix the big ones and the small ones in a pile,” Mr. Farouk explains. “You must point to the small ones. Shake your head; offer a lower price. Otherwise they will think you are just a stupid tourist.”

I am just a stupid tourist, I think, but I do as I’m told and scowl at the papayas. The merchant tries not to laugh as I mangle the numbers and achieve a discount of approximately two cents. Mr. Farouk beams and declares me ready to go out into the world.

The world, it turns out, is a forgiving place when you open your mouth and try to make another language come out. With the exception of rambutans and witch doctors, I found a use for most everything I’d learned. I didn’t argue much over the price of papayas, but I was at the top of my game when it came to taxis. And I aced the greetings.

Now, months later, I’ve forgotten many of the words, but those I retain form an outline of the trip: a collection of verbal souvenirs. I can say kingfish and mango, hot pepper, cold beer, too expensive, and (most essentially) thank you very much. I had reason to say that a lot. Also: I hold your feet, that mango is too small, and (the manager at the guest house would be glad to know), what news of waking up.

Contact information: Institute of Kiswahili and Foreign Languages Telephone: 255-24-2230724 e-mail: takluki@zanlink.com University of Dar es Salaam 255-22-2410757 swahili@ucc.ac.tz www.udsm.ac.tz/kiswahilicourses.html