16 October 2013

Stuttering in Swahili - snakes that slither - sausages that fall & creepies that crawl!

“The experience of the author confirms that Swahili is an easy language; that its use is widespread, and that there is probably no easier language to learn.”  Thus began the preface to a Swahili dictionary that I bought recently.  The author (Mr Safari!) might as well have written: “Learning this language is a complete doddle and you should have no trouble getting to grips with it”!  Well, it has to be said that this guy has not become my best friend and those words have stuck in my throat on more than one occasion!  Yes, compared to learning Mandarin, Mongolian or Hebrew, Swahili is probably one of the easier languages to learn but there have been days when it certainly doesn’t feel as easy as this guy suggests; days when the brain fog has descended, when nothing seems to sink in, and I’m unable to utter even the most basic of greetings! 

A few weeks ago we were sent out by our language teachers, in two’s and three’s, into the highways and byways of Iringa town.  Our task was to engage in meaningful conversation with the market-stall holders and to buy some produce using our newly-acquired Swahili.  Well, unlike the disciples who were sent out by Jesus to preach the gospel and duly returned full of joy at the ‘success’ of their ministry, we were unable to return to our teachers with the words ‘mission accomplished’!  For one thing I came back with a bag of lemons when I thought I’d asked for oranges and there were moments where I simply stood there, mouth wide open, scraping the recesses of my mind for the right words to come forth.  Alas, the smiling fruit-seller is still waiting! Oh the joys of learning language!  As a friend wrote recently in an email: “The men who built the Tower of Babel have a lot to answer for”!

The word ‘Swahili’ is actually derived from the Arabic word ‘sawahel’ which means ‘coast’, so it came into being as the language of the coastal people of East Africa.  It’s essentially an African language but has borrowed quite a few words from the Arabic language – in fact any verb ending in the letters E, I, or U has an Arabic origin.  Most of the words tend to roll off the tongue once you’ve learnt them because you say them as you see them.  Here are some of my favourites: parachichi (avocado), pilipilihoho (peppers), tikitimaji (water melon), magoti (knees), nyanya (tomato or grandma – take your pick!) and kizunguzungu, which of course means ‘dizzy’!  As part of my coursework I’ve had to write out hundreds of practice sentences in my notebook – many of them akin to ‘the cat sat on the mat’!  Here are a couple which I know will come in handy once I begin to preach in Swahili: “Kidevu changu ni kikubwa” (my chin is big) and “Huyu ni kiboko wetu kivivu” (this is our lazy hippo)!
If we’re honest, despite the frustrations that all language learners experience, Ruth and I are, on the whole, enjoying our learning stay in the Tanzanian bush!  And although we won’t be anywhere near fluent when we finish the course in six weeks’ time, our time here is certainly providing a good foundation for the on-going process of learning Swahili.  Whilst there are days of frustration there are many more days when we feel as though we’re making progress.  Slowly but surely we’re beginning to grasp the language that Mr Safari tells me is the easiest one to learn!  We’re certainly thankful for this opportunity of spending quality time learning Swahili before we dive head-first into the business of life and ministry in Morogoro.

Beware of falling sausages! Away from the classroom the past few weeks have provided a number of naturalistic distractions which can occur when you live in rural Africa!  One particular danger that lurks in the grounds of our campsite is the fabulously named ‘Sausage Tree’, and I was only yards away from a severe headache just the other day!  Woe betide anyone who happens to be walking under one of these trees when their ‘fruits’ decide to fall!  I am sure this tree would be on the ‘banned’ list in the UK, or at least fenced-off as a potential hazard to life.  I can imagine the health & safety bods issuing hard-hats to all who dared to pass under the canopy of this arboreal missile!  Wikipedia describes the fruit of the Sausage Tree as a ‘woody berry’ but don’t be deceived by the word ‘berry’ which normally implies softness!  They hang down on long rope-like stalks and measure between 30-100cms in length, up to 18cms wide, and weigh between 5-10kgs!

The fruit, which is fibrous and pulpy, is packed full of seeds which are eaten by baboons, elephants, giraffes and hippos as well as a number of parrot species.  In terms of human usage, these lethal ‘berries’ are said to be a cure for rheumatism, snakebites and evil spirits!!  However, make sure you roast them first because, if eaten fresh, they are poisonous and strongly purgative!  Wikipedia signs off with this helpful advice: “Planting sites should be carefully selected, as the falling fruit can cause serious injury to people, and damage vehicles parked under the trees”!  The Arabic name for this tree is just as descriptive, for it means the “father of kit bags”!

Feeling the heat! We had a bush fire that spread across the hillside behind our banda a few weeks ago.  There hasn’t been any rain here since June and they’re not expecting any until mid-November and so the grass is tinder-dry and tends to get quite excited when a few sparks are let lose!  The night guards and a number of the villagers were summoned to fight the blaze, and out they trooped, fanning out across the hillside, armed with the latest fire-fighting equipment – a few snapped-off tree branches!  ‘Ablazingly’ their efforts paid off and the fire was subdued within an hour.  It was certainly a dramatic evening, with our banda-neighbours hurriedly packing their suitcases in case of evacuation, whilst I ran up and down the road taking photos!  I was then ‘ordered’ by the camp manager to go and guard the main gate on the premise that the fire might have been started to draw-out our trusty guards.  I wasn’t quite sure what I was meant to do with the four-foot rifle that was thrust into my hands!  It turned out the fire had been started by a few shepherd boys who were keen to encourage some new growth to sprout forth for their cattle – but alas, things had got slightly out of hand!

Cover up them toes!  We’ve also endured a bout of bed-bugs which certainly left their mark, but by far the more invasive of pests that we’ve had to deal with is the humble Chigoe Flee, otherwise known as the Jigger – or should that be, the digger!  It’s a very small flee at only 1mm in length and normally lives in sand and soil, unless it can find someone to attach itself to! Unlike most flees
which have their free meal and then drop off, the female Chigoe attaches itself to a victim’s feet and then burrows its way into the skin, remaining there for two weeks whilst its tiny eggs develop!  The 5-10 mm blister that it live in gradually becomes harder although the thoughtful critter somehow anesthetises the area it lives in, making it somewhat easier to dig out with a safety pin and some scissors!  Our toes will never be the same again!

We also returned one night from the dining room to find that our veranda and doorway had been invaded by army ants.  There must have been thousands of them, and once they have a route in mind, they don’t like to be detoured!  Considering their size, it’s amazing how much their little munchers can be felt once they make it past sock-level!  Once again the guards came to our rescue although at first we began to question this because they proceeded to set fire to
the banda surrounds!  And then to round it all off, a few days later, an 8ft python was found about 100 yards from our banda.  I had been busy preparing for a guys’ prayer meeting and was alerted by shouts of “nyoka kubwa sana”, which literally translates as ‘snake big very’!  One of our colleagues had been alerted to the python’s presence through the warning cries of some lofty bush-babies, and so out plodded the guards again, although this time in a more guarded manner!  Although most pythons don’t have a poisonous bite (they kill small mammals through asphyxiation) and don’t really present a threat to adults (unless trodden on!) you’ll find that in African village life, a snake is a snake and therefore needs to be dealt with.  Deal with it they did and the re-coiling serpent eventually succumbed to a number of hefty blows to the noggin!  I have to admit to coming away from this ‘stoning’ feeling surprisingly sorry for this particular snake, although am well aware that quite a few people in rural Africa die as a result of snake bites.

Well, if you’ve got this far, well done!  We hope we’ve given you a small glimpse of what it’s like to begin learning a language, as well as a flavour of what it can be like to live in rural Africa.  To those who pray, thank you again for your on-going prayers and support.  There have been days when I’ve been aware of people praying because I’ve often felt a surprising ‘uplift’ during lessons that I had previously dreaded!  Ruth continues to do well in both learning the language and in regard to her health situation.  She is still on daily meds and continues to obey doctor’s orders to wear her compression stocking, despite the heat!  And apart from the occasional ‘you-know-whats’ we’ve enjoyed very good health!  Our prayer requests this month again revolve around learning this language – that we would be enabled and strengthened to do the best we can and to make the most of this opportunity; that we’d grasp the Swahili nettle with both hands, and in the process be effective witnesses to our teachers.  We leave here on 23rd Nov before heading up to Kenya on 28th Nov for AIM’s Eastern Region conference, but we hope to provide you with an update just in about five weeks’ time, just before this particular chapter closes.

Thanks for reading; thanks for your prayers, and thanks for your friendship.