It’s a cool Sunday morning, and the roosters are crowing. I’m drinking instant coffee. When in Rome and all.
I had a great chat last night with my housemate Madalena, who is from Portugal and is volunteering at the school. We talked about travels, and countries, and languages, and our experiences so far. We’re planning to go on safari together during break.
She works at the school in the evenings and on weekends, giving the dorm parents time off. Before she came home last night, the power was out, and at one point I went outside to look at the stars. Orion and Sagittarius were directly overhead.
I saw Samuel shining his flashlight around, ever vigilant, and called him over. We had a long talk, mostly in English, as I tried to help him learn a few new things. Earlier in the day, when I went to the soccer game, my gatekeeper friend, Ndekirwa, taught me a good phrase when I tried out some new words. “Kidogo kidogo” — “little by little.”
The more Samuel and I talk, the more I realize how limited his English is. It can be deceiving, because most people here are very proficient with greetings and a narrow range of small talk. But beyond that, they don’t have a whole lot, which is probably why they’re eager to learn.
Someone was singing in a neighboring yard, so we talked about singing: “I like singing. Do you sing?” “Yes, I sing,” he said. He told me how to say it in Swahili: “Ninapenda kuimba.” I tried to elicit the word for “beautiful,” by saying “The stars are beautiful.” “The song is beautiful.” “The woman is beautiful.” He stopped me there. “What is woman?” I said, “Mke. My wife is a woman. You and I are men.”
Out of the blue, Samuel said, “I am liking to learn English” — a variation on the sentence I taught him yesterday: “I am trying to learn English.” He’s recognizing the parts in English sentences and recombining them in new (and sometimes wrong) ways, just liked I’m doing in Kiswahili. I’ve learned “Ninajaribu” and “Ninapenda”; he’s picked up “I am trying” and “I like.”
“Moja moja,” he says. One by one.
“Kidogo kidogo.” I say. Little by little. For me, it started with first person present tense, “nina” attached to a verb stem. Then came second person: “una.” During the week I’ve picked up a little past tense (“nili” and “uli”) and future tense (“nita,” “uta”), and I’m starting to figure out possession (-angu, -ako). To show you how little I know, I can’t even say “they” or “you all” or “it” or insert the right morpheme for direct objects.
In Swahili, I asked Samuel if he learned English in school, and he said he did. I said I did not learn Swahili in school. I may have misinterpreted, but he seemed surprised that Swahili is not taught in American schools, and that few people in America speak Swahili.
Samuel and I tried to come to an agreement on “hard” and “easy,” but we didn’t get very far. The closest we got to “easy” was “huru,” which means “free,” as in “Uhuru.” (I looked it up this morning, and I’ll try out “rahisi” tonight.) A little while later, out of the blue, Samuel said, “Mgumu.” I grabbed my phone, which has Google Translate (which I’ll write about one of these days), and the word came up “tough.” To check if I was right, I typed in “hard,” which came up “ngumu,” no doubt a related form. “Difficult” came up “vigumu.”
Later in our conversation, Samuel was having a hard time repeating something, and he shook his head and said “tough.” Samuel helped me learn the numbers from 11 to 29. When he got to “30” I made him stop. The numbers for 20, 30, 40, 50, and so on are not closely related to 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., so they’re hard to learn. Moja a moja.
He told me he can count to 100, and I helped him learn what comes next: one hundred and one, one hundred and two, and so on.
I also taught him some past and future tense, after he taught me “yesterday” and “today.” “Yesterday I learned, today I learn, tomorrow I will learn,” I said (not bothering to explain that “am learning” would be a more common phrase). He repeated the sentences perfectly, but struggled with the ‘r’ in learn. I tell him to say it the British way, where the ‘r’ is not as pronounced, but he says, “I like American.”
“In ten weeks,” I tell him, “you will speak English.”
“Wiki kumi,” he says, “utaongea Kiswahili.”