Breaking Down Imaginary Walls

Posted: March 17, 2014

After three weeks of Swahili class, I have a solid foundation of simple greetings and phrases like hakuna matata, which I learned in my childhood while watching The Lion King. It’s funny how Walt Disney borrowed so much from this language, like rafiki meaning friend, and simba, which is lion.

To prepare for a homestay this coming Saturday, our Swahili instructor, Grace, gave us an assignment. We were to set out in pairs to interview locals and ask them simple questions like What is your name? Where do you live? and Do you have children? The task stirred my nerves a bit because I lack confidence in speaking the language. Nonetheless, my friend Mel and I signed ourselves out of camp and headed left on the clay dirt road, opposite of the village Rhotia. We greeted, “Shikamoo mama” (which translates literally to “I hold your feet”) when passing an elderly woman with Tanzanian fabric draped over her and a water jug balanced naturally on her head. She replied faintly and offered us a smile.

We continued walking past maize fields and small bomas until we noticed a gentleman trimming the hedges outside his home. With our guide sheet in hand, Mel and I began the interview. We traded questions for answers and ultimately learned that he has a wife and three children, works in Rhotia, and wakes up at 8am. He was kind and accepting of our project, as most folks here seem happily eager to talk to us mzungu.

We continued down the path when another man caught up with us from behind. He was carrying a two-stringed instrument in his right hand with a bow in his left, singing a cheerful little tune to the days of the week. After he exhausted that, he began a new song: the alphabet. I luckily had my cell phone on hand, so I pulled it out to snap a video of the serenade. He held out the banjo-looking instrument to me, as if I could play a tune for him. I acknowledged and he put it to my chest, while showing me the motion of the bow. He quickly realized that I was horribly bad at this foreign instrument; nonetheless he appeared happy to be with us mzungu.

At the start, I was apprehensive about this assignment because I find it difficult to construct basic sentences in Swahili. It’s true that language can be a barrier, but only if you treat it as such. It is possible to break down those imaginary walls without words; it just takes a little effort and creativity.