By Hanna Azemati, KF9 Kenya

Our first Swahili class in the early morning tranquility of the still shuttered Prestige Plaza cafeteria in Kilimani was interjected with a myriad of embarrassing anecdotes of faux pas called forth by each new lesson that Lucy taught us. As Anne, Rachel and I, the three Nairobi Kiva Fellows, can attest, it behooves anyone new to Kenya to learn Swahili as promptly as possible and not because Kenyans don’t speak English. In fact, most Kenyans speak both official languages, English and Swahili, in addition to one of the sixty regional Bantu, Nilotic or Cushitic tribal languages. But as Lucy put it, “You can’t teach Swahili without teaching culture. And you might even find yourself learning some more English.”  As we reviewed in our minds every interaction so far had to gauge the damage, we realized that the inverse is true also: without the linguistic investment, much of the inextricably linked Kenyan culture had escaped us.

We spent most of the two hours studying the innumerable ways to greet – a favorite Kenyan pastime. The more questions you ask about someone’s work, home, family, health and even sleep the more polite you are considered. Anne coined it the “habari family” where “habari” translates to “how is?” Although not quite as formulaic as the English “how are you?” which tends to elicit the uninspired “good,” Kenyans’ positive outlook on life renders any negative response to the question absolutely taboo. In fact, Lucy introduced the word “mbaya” for “bad” only in order to teach us “si mbaya,” or “not bad.”

Anne, Rachel, Lucy and I during Swahili class in Kilimani

Lucy also cleared up much bewilderment by explaining the influence of communalism on Swahili. I had wondered at Faulu Kiva Coordinator and Pastor Zach’s curiously frequent “I’m sorry dear,” whose genuine and heartfelt tone I had at times mistaken as mocking when invoked by trivial incidents in which he was not complicit. He would apologize when I dropped a coin as if he had just spilled hot tea on me (not unlikely, by the way, given the peculiar amounts of sugary, creamy tea consumed here). But “pole” translates to “I sympathize with you” and reflects a sharing of inconvenience or pain.

What failed to incite an apology was tardiness. We each had bemusing stories of being stood up or meetings that are endlessly delayed.  According to Lucy, this is because Kenyans are not used to planning ahead. In addition, as people used to (and the elderly still) measure time using sundials, the deviation from the accurate time broadens the consensus on punctuality to “within the hour.”

The communal culture also explains the rarity of “thank you” and “please,” staple phrases in America. These words did not exist in Swahili and why would they when helping and sharing are ingrained as the norm? The equivalent “asante” and “tafadhali” were eventually devised to tally with the English but are summoned up by momentous circumstances only – not to borrow a pen.

Furthermore, in Swahili, requests are expressed using the subjunctive form of verbs, which already insinuates courtesy. To say “please” is redundant. Unfortunately, the implication of politeness is lost in translation and “give me this” or “bring me that” are construed as commanding and rude in English.

Lucy also enlightened us on the protocol for disagreeing. Saying “no” is another taboo, calling for imaginative, if circumlocutory, excuses or if all fails, affirmations without the intent of following through.

In short, learning Swahili is not enough. To effectively communicate, Rachel, Anne and I will also have to learn how to read between the lines. Often misleading, body language is not reliably universal either. The avoidance of eye contact, for instance, even during conversation, might strike a novice as suspect but actually is an important mark of respect to Kenyans.

And finally, best wishes for 2010 to you all! My resolutions this year: to come up with creative excuses, be less grateful and much more sorry.

Hanna Azemati is a member of KF9 serving her Kiva Fellowship at Faulu in Nairobi, Kenya. Join her on the Friends of Faulu Lending Team. Click here for all fundraising loans on Kiva.

<< Fellows Updates