Today was a good day. I went to class, met a bunch of nice people, learned some Swahili, went for a walk on the dirt roads, and got some necessary work done on various projects from home that I need to finish.
On my walk, I practiced my “Habari”s. It’s kind of an all-purpose greeting, from what I can tell, meaning “How are you?” The response, “Nzuri” (good), is really hard for me to remember. Actually, every word is hard to remember because they’re so different from English words and because my memory doesn’t work as well as it once did. But “nzuri” is particularly slippery.
One that’s easier is “marahaba.” I’ve only been able to use it a couple times, but it feels good every time I do. That’s because it’s a response to “shikamoo,” which is a respectful greeting reserved mainly for older people. Apparently it means something like “I hold your feet,” and “marahaba” means something like “Thanks for showing me respect.”
One guy on campus waved to me, and when I waved back, he said, “Me, Shikamoo, You, Marahaba!” And then he yelled “Shikamoo” and I yelled “Marahaba!”
A couple kids also used it after I heard them talking about me and surprised them by changing direction and heading toward them. I was walking behind the dorms along the fence like a stalker, trying to get the lay of the land, and they said something that I figured meant “Look at that funny looking old white guy stumbling through the bushes like a stalker.”
We engaged in conversation in English (they’re students here) and I asked them for some Swahili lessons, and they brought up “shikamoo” and “marahaba.” Then one of the kids tattled on the other: “He called you ‘mzungu.’” Which is a word for a white person or foreigner, so maybe I was right. They taught me how to ask a person’s name, which I did, and how to say my own name, which I also did.
When I walked away, I tripped, and one of them said “pole” (po-lay) which I had thought meant “slowly” because the roads are painted with “pole pole,” which is apparently kind of a theme here and in other parts of Africa. I asked him why he said “pole,” and he said, “Because you tripped.” Turns out “pole” means “sorry” while “pole pole” means something like “take it easy.”
I also chatted with the security guard who sits in my yard all night. I asked him his name in Swahili, and he told me it was Samuel. We tried to converse using his limited English and my day’s worth of Swahili, and by the end, it seemed we were good friends. We talked about his three boys and my two kids, and he acted embarrassed about his English. I also learned that the proper pronunciation is “Tahn-ZAHN-ia” not (Tan-za-NEE-a). When I told him “kwaheri” (goodbye), he gave me a heartfelt two-handed handshake and said, “Asante sana” (thank you very much).
Whenever I mess around with language, however poorly, I think of my dad, of course, who made a living teaching himself languages by messing around and then teaching others to do the same. I remember watching him once strike up a conversation with a complete stranger in a language he didn’t know or even recognize. It was a demonstration in a college course at Bethel, where he taught and I attended. Within twenty minutes he had the basics of the grammar figured out and had a pretty good idea what language it was.
Dad came up with some great little catch phrases that were coming back to me on my walk: language is like a “sticky little ball” (his version of Chomsky’s “universal grammar”) and his simple four-step process for language learning: get what you need, learn what you get, practice what you learn, use what you practice (or something like that). (After googling it, I found the acronym GLUE: “Get what you need; learn what you get; use what you learn; evaluate what you use.”)
Typical me, I forgot the three books I needed most: my Tanzania guidebook, my Swahili dictionary, and my dad’s “Guidelines for Barefoot Language Learning,” which he wrote and self-published with a lot of help from my brother and sister, and a little help from me.
I feel barefoot without it, but maybe that’s a good thing.
(PS, I’m updating this with some photos of Ashraf and Brian, the two boys who called me “Mzungu” and helped me with Swahili. FYI, they’ve started calling me Mr. Larson.)