The roundish, baldish, gruffish language tutor prided himself in his home area’s version of the Swahili language. After all, his was the Coast Swahili variety. Only Kenya’s neighbor to the south, Tanzania, could compete with the gold standard Swahili spoken along the teacher’s Indian Ocean region. His voice was raspy, making him seem harsher than he really was. His sudden “La!” (No!) was instantly followed by a terse scold, “Up-country Swahili!” With little patience for poorly-spoken words, the aging gent spat out the phrase as if evicting a live wasp from his mouth.
It was through this mwalimu mzee (elder instructor) I first caught the need to communicate well in another culture. This was further driven home once our stay in the Capital ended. Through a much-loved missionary headmistress whose wrinkle-teased eyes constantly twinkled and whose tongue offered up wisdom and wit by the kilo. . . “I believe I understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure that what I said is what you thought I meant.” A sampling of Elizabeth Ridenour’s way of making the point.
Some places are not the best for a native English-speaker to learn the Swahili language. Nairobi was one of them. A recommended, though challenging way, to master a new language is through a method called immersion learning. Learning by immersion happens when everybody around the student understands and speaks the desired language, but do not speak the student’s language. A sink or swim approach.
By the time most Nairobi kids reached adolescence they were fluent in two or more languages. And with English the nation’s official language – in government-sponsored places like post office, secondary schools and parliament – young people thirsted to know English. During my language school months, the moment I tried bumbling through half a sentence of Swahili in the company of a teenager, the youngster was already responding in crisp, fluent English.
Meaningful practice of the African dialect outside the classroom was rare.
I was dead set on communicating well – as Mwalimu Mzee insisted. With proper ‘textbook grammar’, exact pronunciation. . . Coast–like. That was my aim. And I must not yield to the great linguistic sin – any use of upcountry Swahili.
Months passed. Classes ended. The Mission assigned us to a remote station hundreds of miles further inland from the Coast. How would my textbook Swahili do. . . there in the place we were to live and serve?
©2017 Jerry Lout