Breaking the Language Barrier

In this global world of ours, it is almost too easy to survive with English. Granted it makes things a lot easier when everyone can speak the same language, but in my opinion the importance of learning local languages can’t be stressed enough. The beauty of being able to communicate even a little with the locals was highlighted during our three weeks in Tanzania.

Not only do you get to learn a weird and wonderful new tool for communication, but as far as I have seen, the other benefits greatly outweigh the trouble. Local languages such as swahili in our case give you a glimpse of the culture and psyche of the locals. Knowing even a few words can ease everyday dealings but the most important thing I have noticed, is that no matter how bad your attempt at getting that “hello” or “how are you” across, nine times out of ten the fact that you are even trying brings a smile to the recipient’s face. And what is better than that?

I think we Finns can relate to this. Whenever I encounter someone who has gone through the trouble of learning our extremely weird language, I feel warm inside. I know it is a small thing but it matters!

I am almost ashamed to admit that when I landed in Tanzania, my knowledge of Swahili was negligible. I new that when meeting someone older or in a higher position I should politely greet them by saying “shikamo” (= I clasp at your feet) and wait for “marhaba” in response. For friends I could shout “mambo” and answer “poa”. Additionally I had learned that the Swahili word for westerner was “mzungu”, which according to some sources meant: someone who wanders around aimlessly. I strongly related to this, but for my local language skills that was pretty much it. And things were not much more advanced with the rest of my group. But not to worry, as we had three weeks of learning possibilities ahead of us.

The best thing is, in the beginning you can have a language lesson almost anywhere: with the hostel staff, with bajaji (tuk tuk) drivers or in our case with members of our project communities, who were eager to engage in conversations, but also had a limited knowledge of English.  Perfect! I dare say that during our stay, all of us became adept at the basic small talk required. We also had some great examples of success with being brave in using the newly learned phrases:

  • While travelling home from our first visit to the target communities we got stuck in traffic. I noticed a street vendor selling maps and immediately asked for a price. The vendor gave me truly ridiculous sum of 50 000 TZS (around 22€), to which I exclaimed without a thought: whaat, mzungu price! He instantly offered a far more reasonable 10 000 TZS. In the end I didn’t buy the map, but the terms: mzungu price and rafiki (friend) price became instant classics to our bargaining arsenal. In most cases they worked brilliantly!
  • Another good example would be the “malaika” song. During our community visit Jacqueline asked our translator to teach us a Swahili song. After some thought he taught us the chorus for a popular song, which was: “malaika, nakupenda malaika” (my angel, I love you my angel). Although we only new the two words and the melody, during the rest of our visit we would randomly burst into song whenever we felt like it. I guess we were lucky with the song, as it was instantly recognised everywhere and brought a lot of smiles. Sometimes we even got the locals to dance and sing the rest of the song!
  • Not everything has to go perfectly either, as mistakes often help in remembering things. During the first days Jacqui made the mistake of uttering “haribu” (you know, the candy!), as she quite understandably, accidentally mixed “habari” (greeting) and “karibu” (welcome). This became a running joke in our group, but also served as a great way to remember the difference. I experienced my own mishap while trying to start something new by saying “shikaBro” to our translator. This was met with an utterly confused expression. “How can you touch me Erik?” (see translation of shikamo).

My personal triumph with Swahili came when we were introducing ourselves to the community of Keko Machungwa. I decided on the fly that even though there were some 15 locals present, I would try to do my intro in their language regardless of the pressure. What followed was a smooth enough:

  • Shikamo (greetings)
  • Jina langu ni Eriki (my name is Eriki, the groovy Swahili version of Erik, which I have grown to love)
  • Natoka uFinlandi  (I am from Finland)
  • Nakupenda Keko Machungwa (I love you Keko Machungwa)

Albeit simple, this was greeted with umeme  (another cool thing we learned, instead of applauding the community members would wake their hands toward the speaker and say umeme, which means lightning, while the recipient would soak the adulation in) and warm-hearted laughter, which made it all worth it. The ice had been broken! The next thing I knew was that I was being bombarded by: how long have you studied Swahili, with the expressions being almost shocked upon hearing the answer.

Learning the local language might seem irrelevant at first, but in the end what it does is show respect and a will to adapt. For us it is crucial as we are not here to command, but rather to co-operate and work together. In this regard I think we all did a great job. And besides, Swahili is super cool!

Tuta unana, badai. Kila laheri!



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