June 13th, 2009

Three weeks of Swahili.

Swahili is straightforward to pronounce: it uses the five standard European vowel sounds, and the consonants work just like English, including "j", "ch", and "sh". The "r" is rolled. Otherwise, pronounce every letter individually, exactly as it's spelled. In short, you can pronounce Swahili as though it were Japanese written in the Roman alphabet.

jambo! hello!
— jambo!
habariyako? how are you? (what's the news?)
— mzuri [sana] [very] good!
ni me furahi kukutana na wewe I'm pleased to meet you
ni me furahi I'm happy

habari asabuhi? good morning! (what's the news of the morning?)
lala salama good night! (sleep well)
ume lala salama? did you sleep well?

mambo! what's up?
— poa [sana] it's cool

asante thank you
asante sana thank you very much
karibu welcome! / you're welcome
tena again
karibu tena come back again
tafadhali please
samahani sorry
asante kwa kunifundisha kiswahili thanks for teaching me Swahili!

barabara road
gari car
baiskeli bicycle
pikipiki motorbike
matatu a private minibus packed with far too many passengers travelling at dangerously high speeds, usually painted brightly with an exciting name like PIRATES or a Christian slogan

mimi me
wewe you
sisi us
sasa now
leo today
kesho tomorrow
chakula food
maji water
chooni bathroom

ngombe cow
kondoo sheep
mbosi goat
pondo donkey
pondo milia zebra
simba lion
masharubu beard (nickname for "male lion")
tembo elephant
swala pala impala
swala Tommy Thomson's gazelle (with the black stripe)
swala Grant Grant's gazelle (no black stripe)

jinalangu ni Ping my name is Ping
wewe je? and you...?
jinalako? what's your name?
hi ni nini? what is this? (great for learning new words)
hi ni ... this is ...

ndyo yes
hapana no
kushoto left
kulia right
mengi a lot
ndogo / kidogo a little

ni is
na and / with
kwa for
wa in
ya of
nini what
wapi where

chooni ni wapi [tafadhali]? where is the bathroom?
unatoka wapi? where are you from?
unaenda wapi? where are you going?
mimi naenda ... I'm going to ...

moja one
mbili two
tatu three
nne four
tano five
sita six
saba seven
nane eight
tisa nine
kumi ten

ishirini twenty
thelathini thirty
arubaini forty
hamsini fifty
sitini sixty
sabini seventy
themanini eighty
tisini ninety
mia hundred

ngombe tano five cows
mia nne na tisini na sita four hundred ninety-six

What I learned in Africa.

Rusty corrugated metal is not scrap; it's what you use to make roofs and walls.

Lane markings (dotted or solid) are merely recommendations. On a two-lane road, it's normal to squeeze between the two opposing lanes of traffic to pass the car in front of you. So is honking at the bicycles to get out of your way so you can complete this manoeuvre.

Passing pedestrians, bicycles, and other cars at high speed with six inches of clearance is normal.

Almost all signs, even official government signs, are hand-painted. Spelling, grammar, and typographic consistency are all optional.

Roads are made of dirt, rocks, and potholes. To drive down a straight road is to navigate a labyrinth. African drivers have developed a keen ability to see through dust clouds, generate a mental topography of the oncoming terrain, and estimate the depth of each bump and depression. Using this data they plan a winding route along the road (and occasionally off the side of the road) and adjust their speed just enough to keep you from being tossed out of your seat.

Just about anyone can balance anything on their head. They all learned it as children. Grown men don't do it, though; they consider it embarassing.

The side of the road is a place for:

  • Goats
  • Sheep
  • Chickens
  • People towing wooden carts loaded with dozens of tires
  • Broken-down vehicles
  • People standing around who were riding in said vehicles, waiting to be picked up
  • Overturned trucks
  • 8-year old Maasai children directing herds of cattle
  • Termite mounds taller than you are

A bicycle is more than a handy personal vehicle; it is also a cart and a revenue source. You can take your five 20-litre jugs of water, your bundle of firewood, or your sacks of produce for the market, tie them to your bike and walk the bike up the hill. Or, pile an extra person or two on the back of your bike, and you have just become a gainfully employed taxi driver.

Lots and lots of people really do live in little straw huts. To them it is neither charming nor pitiable; it's just how they live.

Walking 10 kilometres to get to primary school is normal.

Everywhere except the big cities, each car is followed by a dust cloud as long as a city block. Everything is covered in a layer of dust — the cars, the buildings, the people. On paved roads, cars are followed by great clouds of pungent black smoke. I have probably tripled my particulate intake for the year during this trip.

There's nothing weird about having a mobile phone but having neither running water nor electricity in your home.

Just honk and keep driving (slowly). The 20 baboons sitting in the road will get out of the way.