I am by nature an introvert, but I’m borderline enough that once in a while I can break out of my shell and talk to strangers. For some reason, probably genetic, I find it easier to talk to strangers if they have different color skin and speak a different language. Oddly enough, I feel more at home on the other side of the world. Maybe since I was born there, my internal compass is pointing toward home.
Yesterday on my walk I went down Shanty Town road, which is southeast of my place and was only somewhat appropriately named. I passed through a neighborhood of gated, guarded houses like mine and came to a different sort of neighborhood with barbershops in buildings that looked like fishhouses, and rows of front porch barbecues with no customers who looked anything like me. I hit a blacktop and took it north to the hospital, where I met Hosea, who smelled a little of alcohol, spoke decent English, and tried to tell me he’d show me the sights. I got his number but made no promises.
Closer to home, my “Habari” called another fellow over. Kelly also gave me his number, with no strings attached (at least not yet). He even gave me a hug when we parted. He said to send him an email if I want someone to show him around the city center.
Today I went west, and as I rounded a corner on the dirt road I heard someone call me and turned around. Two young men were sitting in the shade of a bush, and when I came over, one of them said, “Why didn’t you greet us?” I told him I didn’t see them and then proceeded to practice my Swahili, asking them their names while holding a long handshake. The first one, Michael, had to translate for the second one, whose name escapes me. Turns out they were Maasai and were apparently working in the area. The second guy gave me a “Shikamoo,” and I responded “Marahaba” and went on my way.
I stopped at the shop and probably spent way too much for a few groceries, then ordered a beer at the restaurant next door, where a few men were watching an outdoor TV that was attached like a sign to a couple poles and a plywood board, with a little roof to protect it from the rain. There was a lone man at the bar, so I asked if I could sit down, and he said, “Why not?”
I went through my new Swahili sentences, which I learned from a teacher at school. “Ninajaribu kujifunza Kiswahili. Unaweza kunisaidia?” meaning “I am trying to learn Swahili. Can you help me?” (and in the interest of full disclosure, it took me about 30 seconds to stammer out the words with my eyes shut, trying to picture them in my mind).
The gentleman at the bar, whose name turned out to be Frank, proceeded to tell me in English how prefixes in Swahili function as pronouns and tense markers, etc. etc. When I complimented him on his English, and his knowledge of grammar, he told me he was a doctor.
Frank is a Maasai man whose mother died when he was eight months old, so he was raised in an orphanage, where he spoke Maasai in the morning, Swahili in the evening, and anything he wanted after 6 p.m. (including his mother’s language, Meru). He credits an American Peace Corps worker with inspiring him to study science, and he went on to medical school in Dar Es Salaam, followed by additional training in London. He’s now studying to be an ob/gyn at the hospital here in Moshi.
He’s 34 years old and has two children: a 19-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl. When I commented on how young he was when he had his first, he told me the Maasai become men at 13, so it wasn’t that strange.
I asked him about language learning, and he talked about exogenous and endogenous factors, and Broca’s area.
He was also impressed with me, telling me that he couldn’t believe I could “speak Swahili” after four days. I laughed, but he was a little serious. He told me that if I wanted to, he’d try to get me a job teaching Swahili to visiting medical students and doctors who come to work at the hospital. He said they’d pay for my flight, and lodging, and meals. He thought the London school of medicine might hire me to teach in the UK. (Dad was probably right when he tried to get me to study linguistics all those years ago. But I had other things on my mind at the time.)
When Frank was on the phone, I tried to talk to an old man with cloudy eyes who was sitting on a bench. I didn’t get very far, but he did give a hearty “Marahaba!” to my “Shikamoo!”
Failure notwithstanding, I got another language lesson, made another friend, and even got a job offer. Almost enough to turn me into an extrovert.