Swahili Blunders

Learning more about Tanzanian culture has been a fascinating journey thus far. Like most things in life, the more I learn, the more I discover how little I know. As my relationships slowly deepen with my colleagues at Tujijenge Tanzania and with other new friends, I’m beginning to gradually pick up more insights into their culture– their high values of community and unity, and how everything seems to happen according to the belief “if God wills” –a phrase used frequently in everyday interactions (and especially to explain  the common occurrence of when things don’t happen as planned).

One of my favorite parts of the day is chatting with staff at the office during lunch and tea times. My translator (a woman in her fifties) and I are now on a level of friendship where we can swap stories that amuse each other due to our cultural differences. I am shocked by her stories about polygamy and witchcraft, and other intriguing topics. Among many other things, she is shocked at my American interaction with my parents, finding it hard to believe that I no longer have to ask permission to stay a night at a friend’s, etc. She also laughs at my “indifference” toward my current wardrobe– a mixture of traditional Tanzanian wear and some typical American business-casual. She has nicely pointed out to me which clothes she thinks look “bad” on me. Ironically enough, her favorites are my western clothes– the ones that conceal my efforts to try to fit in culturally. They are also the clothes that (for some strange reason) make me look really young here and have often given me the “student discount” when riding public transportation!!

While I have been trying to pick up the language, I have had many moments of embarrassment in this difficult process. Here are a few of my Swahili blunders for you to enjoy:

  • Once, I told my translator in a van taxi to “sit on her butt.” After she and the entire van laughed at my ignorant rudeness, I learned that this phrase was falsely indicated as being proper in my Say it in Swahili book.
  • Another time in a van taxi, instead of asking a client if he had a wife, I accidentally used a word that would generally mean an “old woman.” As if this wasn’t bad enough, in this specific context, I found out that I was really asking him if he had a “mistress.” Although forgiving of my blunder, he understandably didn’t want to answer any more of my questions in the crowded vehicle!!
  • One time, out on the field, I unknowingly asked a client if she could “manage her husband.”
  • On the way to work one morning, a guy walking past on the road joked with me that I was his “mchumba” or fiancé. At the time, I mistook the word for “chumba” meaning “room,” and so nicely agreed with him, thinking he was referring to something about the location of where I lived. He responded overly happy, so when I reached the office, I had someone clear the confusion for me. Fortunately, I haven’t run into him again since!
  • This past Thursday at the office, I accidentally told a client, “Please, sit down on your one, small bottom.”

I have quickly learned in these past two months that Tanzanians are not only friendly, but they are very forgiving as well. For my sake (and for Kiva’s reputation!!), you should be happy to know that I have just started taking weekly Swahili lessons! My tutor, a neighbor of mine, is a government-paid teacher who holds a master’s degree but has yet to earn a salary indicating this credential. To support his family, he and his wife constantly search for additional odd jobs to get by– a common story I have encountered here.

Mpaka baadaye “until next time,” Dana



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