Recently a dear friend who’s never been to any African country asked me “How does it feel to come from a holiday?” The question made no sense, but was perplexing. She went on explain that whenever she thinks of Kenya, she thinks of wildlife, exotic people aka the Maasai, sun, sea and white sands. I smiled, thanked her for the compliment (always done as an afterthought because it’s just not natural), but decided to ‘educate’ her slightly. In Kenya children go to school, adults go to work, some stay at home, some people are poor, some people are rich, some people have never seen a lion, other exotic people exists aka Kikuyus, Luos, Tugens etc list is too long, some people have never left the country or their villages for that matter, just like some people in Texas or Cardiff who I hear have never set foot outside Texas’ or Cardiff’s borders. And so and so and so. She’s right about one thing though, Kenyans are happy people, we give the impression that we are on holiday 24/7 and most times our lifestyles portrays that. Our favourite pastime is socialising with copious amounts of food and alcohol, and we take this culture with us around the globe. Once, I heard that during the last rugby sevens tournament, Australians were warned to get there on time “before the Kenyans drank all the beers”
Saskia, my dear white sister, is of positive disposition and compared to her bleak and grey country with no wildlife, surrounded by rocky pebbly beaches which can’t qualify as beaches because the waves from the sea are not gentle, they crash against the rocks and sweep anything or anyone in their path, still sees Kenya as paradise, which it is. Her country gets one month of summer where the days are 18 hours long and nights are 6 hours short. The rest of the year is either raining or super cold winters where the days are 6 hours short and nights are 18 hours long. The country has a very high suicide rate due to SAD. In winter, if you throw a bucket of hot water in the air, it spectacularly freezes mid-air.
She’s also fascinated by the number of languages spoken, driving my point home that not only the Maasai populate my motherland. At this point I mention that the Maasai are in Tanzania too. She asks “Where’s that?” I answer “Another Kiswahili speaking country bordering Kenya in the south” Their Kiswahili is concentrated and pure like Russian vodka, ours is diluted and garnished with local lingo and English, “don’t be surprised if there are a few Somali words or Arabic in the mix”, popularly known as Sheng, don’t even go there!!
At this point she totally sold and declares “I want to go there soon. I want to make love to a Maasai man in the wild. Please teach me Swahili”
First, the language is Kiswahili, Swahili is the people and we are not all Swahili people. I am a blunt tool as far as Kiswahili is concerned, my Tanzanian friends can tell you, so I can only teach you what works, besides “why would you want to learn a few words in a language you won’t understand when spoken back to? If I teach you how to ask for water, how will you know if the answer you get has anything to do with water or the person will be plotting something ungodly.”
The best approach is to be well equipped with information and knowledge about how Kenyans communicate, talk and /or behave. Most times, we don’t even talk, we gesture, for example when sitting at a table, a Kenyan will point with their lower lip at a general direction, say at condiments and expect whoever is seeing this gesture to understand that they want the stuff to season their food. Our queen’s English is pristine, however, we can’t help baptising sentences and or words with the local lingo and Kiswahili, for example, someone might ask “kwani you haven’t done this and that”, I can’t even articulate sensibly what ‘kwani’ means in this or any other context, but it’s nevertheless part of the sentence, just like so many others ebu, kumbe, jo etc. You just have to know it exists. Learn the unnecessary words that are interjected between sentences too, for example someone might say ‘last night you disappeared bana’, this sounds broken and bana is ‘bwana’ shortened for whatever reasons but it’s supposedly an endearing addition to make the person feel important. We tend to marry a Kiswahili or local lingo word with ‘ring’ or ‘ad’, for example one might say “I hope you fikaad home safe” it’s too much energy to say arrived. Or “I’m chunguzaaring why abc happened” too heavy on the tongue to say investigate. Too difficult to say the whole sentence in Kiswahili, and even worse to write it down. And for safety, and under no circumstances do not you greet people ‘jambo’ this is very touristy, say things like ‘sasa’ ‘mambo’ ‘ni aje wazee (like Obama did)’; this will instantly promote you to the ‘them’ category.
Mind you, most of this happens in the city limits, if you are up country it’s a different ball game altogether. People there speak and understand English yes, but most tend to directly translate words from their lingo (kikuyus are the worst), for example one might say things like ‘I will climb a bus later’ or ‘I drink cigarettes’ or ‘I drink soup’; when this happens watch their behaviour and the compound words then things will make sense. Beware of our deep accents too, some letters e.g. r, t, p ,b and many others don’t exist in some mother tongues and so when speaking these letters are either mispronounced or left out completely e.g. a car becomes ka, return becomes letan, people becomes bibo. Sometimes letters are added where they shouldn’t be e.g. letter m so people becomes mbibo at which point nothing makes sense anymore. Just nod and move along.
Point to note, millennials don’t have these problems, they have watched too much American TV soaps and dramas and listened to too much American rap music, they now speak with more prominent American tweng (another invention) than real Americans.
Learn our favourite pastimes i.e. drinking and politics. I can’t teach much politics because I don’t live there, political shenanigans, new words and phrase are born every minute, and my politics knowledge is despicable. New born words make little or no sense – recently words like manenos have sprung alive all over the place, this is a plural Kiswahili word re-pluralised in English, it doesn’t get more bizarre than that. Then there are words that are meant to imitate sounds e.g. NKT even some Kenyans don’t know what this means. And then people ask question instead of answering your question e.g. you ask “can I ‘please’ have a cup of water? Answer: Si you get a cup and fill from tap? Scratch that.. from the boiled water in the corner? Si – I have no idea what it means but it precedes many sentences. Some of our words maybe mistaken as rude for example instead of someone saying ‘pardon’ because they didn’t quite understand what you said, they’ll rudely say ‘ati what’. Trust me they are not being uncouth.
Saskia is now well equipped to tour Kenya, mingle with the people, see the wildlife, sprawl on white sand beaches, and most likely sleep with a Kikuyu man masquerading as a Maasai Moran named Ole-Mateso-Bila-Chuki.