Don’t you just love learning a foreign language? It is so much fun! Okay, it’s also exasperating, difficult and often confusing. I am now learning French, and I’ve dabbled in a couple of others, so I know whereof I speak. However, even a language you are familiar with spoken in other parts of the world can offer up befuddlements, discombobulations, and mortifications.
It’s a truth like a cow (a Dutch expression) . . .
. . . that as an expat or a world traveler you have a great advantage if you speak English. You’re especially lucky if you live in a foreign country that actually has English as its official language. It makes shopping for food and reading signs so much easier, don’t you agree?
No picking or alighting!
So, having learned English (in school in my native Holland and later living in the US) paid off for me when I lived in Kenya, East Africa, where both English and Swahili are official languages. I did learn some Swahili, like Cho iko wapi? (Where is the bathroom?) and other such crucial phrases.
My mate was an American Peace Corps volunteer at the time and we lived in a shabby little house loved by spiders and army ants. A maize field started at the bottom of our garden and often we would see women tending the corn. Kikuyu farm women toil like no others. Most flabbergasting to me was seeing women carrying huge loads of firewood on their backs, often with a baby strapped on in front.
Photo credit | Creative Commons License
I was home one afternoon when a rain storm hit. A deluge of water poured forth from the heavens, drumming on our corrugated metal roof. Somehow, above the noise, I became aware of voices outside the front door. I opened it to investigate and found two young Kikuyu women hiding under the roof overhang, farm implements clutched in their hands. They were drenched. They must have come running over from the shamba below to take cover.
They looked at me wide-eyed and terrified. This was a novel experience for me, since it’s not usually the reaction I get when people look at my most ordinary nonthreatening Dutch milkmaid person. Clearly these girls – they were teenagers, really – had not expected to see a white human emerge from this little house. They may never have had a close encounter with one of my kind before, since not many wazungu lived in the area at that time. For a moment we just stood there staring at each other.
Then, since the rain kept a-pouring, I did what was the right thing to do: I invited them in to wait out the deluge. Their eyes grew wider and they looked even more terrified than before, they with the pangas (machetes) and other sharp tools in their hands.
What to do? Clearly, they’d be happiest if I just closed the door and left them alone out there under the overhang. I understood this, although it made me feel uncharitable. So I decided to do the other proper thing, at least for a Dutch person, and offer them a cup of tea.
“Would you like some chai?” I asked. Chai is the Swahili word for tea, a most beloved beverage in Kenya.
“I don’t mind,” one of the girls said. This took me aback a little. I looked at the other girl, who had said nothing.
“Would you like some chai?”
“I don’t mind,” she said.
“You don’t mind? I thought. You can take it or leave it? If I really want to make the effort to fix it, you’ll do me the favor of drinking it?
Peeved a little, I went to the shacky kitchen and brewed the chai, the Kenyan way. I steeped tea leaves in a pan with boiling water, then poured in a copious amount of milk, added a motherload of sugar and brought the lot up to a boil again. No spices like the Indian variety. I had a package of British cookies (biscuits) and put some on a plate, because in Holland you never just offer tea and coffee without something sweet to go with it. The girls said thank you very nicely when I handed them the tray. I left the door ajar, since it seemed so rude to just close it in their faces.
After the storm blew over, I went outside again and found the girls gone, the cups empty, the cookies eaten, the world sparkling.
It wasn’t until later that I learned that in Kenya “I don’t mind” simply means “Yes, please.”
As in many countries that have English as their official language, Kenya too has its own local usages and idioms. It’s often referred to as Kenglish. Here are a few:
“Let me give you a push.” No, that does not mean your Kenyan friend will shove you in a corner. It means that when you’re leaving to go somewhere, he’ll walk along with you.
Say you’ve been gone for a while, on vacation, or on home leave. After you’re back in Kenya, people are happy to see you again and will comment: “You’ve been lost!” (And been found again!)
“Can you pick me?” Pick you for what? To win a prize? To join your team? No, it means: Can you give me a ride/lift? And when you’ve reached your destination you ask the driver to stop because you want to alight. Now you can make sense of the sign at the top of the post.
And here another one of my tales of language trouble: Expat Life: Getting Sheared
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Have you ever been flabbergasted by some language confusion? Do share! The more colorful and embarrassing, the better. Go ahead, scroll down and hit that comment button!