Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Swahili Class Day 1

Bodie and I started off the morning along parallel paths. We each had a new school to attend and new life lessons to master. Bodie focused on navigating the mores, customs and hierarchies of an established social group, albeit one aged 1 ½ to 3. I aimed to learn some rudiments of Swahili. I prepared two backpacks: Bodie’s (a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack) with a snack, change of clothes and extra diapers for his sojourn at Little Scholars Preschool; mine (Timberland) with notebooks and pens for day one at the Tanzania Swahili Language School. I can only judge by how we both emerged from our mornings, but I believe that our paths quickly diverged. While Bodie was skipping around, singing songs, I was utterly bewildered and bleary.

In D.C., before leaving, I was told repeatedly how easy Swahili is to learn. I imagined a language with, oh, maybe a few dozen nouns and a handful of verbs. In my mind, that would be easy to learn. This morning, we spent almost three hours doing nothing but greetings. We haven’t gotten to things like nouns and verbs. Initial inquiries include: hujambo? Hajambo? Habari gani? habari yako? habari ya asabuhi? salama? Habari ya kazi, Karibu… And after learning the 421 ways of saying, “how are you”, there are an equal number of ways to respond, “I’m fine.” We were told that it is customary in Tanzania to exchange greetings before engaging in a conversation. However it appears that it is customary to engage in four hours of greetings before asking for the time.

I want (now maybe wanted) to learn Swahili as it is one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa, used in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and some in southern and central Africa. If I’m going to work and live and integrate here, I think it’s important to be able to converse at a basic level.

There is nothing in the world to make one feel more stupid than trying to learn a brand new language. You don’t realize how you take for granted that you can greet someone and say what your name is, until you can’t. And while our teacher, Mariam, is very patient, I may well have tested her when I was still struggling with “I’m fine” after two hours of intensive coaching.

My Swahili notebook is already starting to look like the notebooks I had in junior high. Although this time, the crossed off names marked with skulls and crossbones aren’t passing crushes, they’re the well-wishers who told me how easy Swahili would be to learn.

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