by Hugh Gilmore

Depending on who is counting and why, there are about 60 tribes and at least as many languages in Kenya. The lingua franca that allows intermingling among linguistic groups is Swahili, the “national” language (Swahili is an invented language derived partly from Bantu, with Arabic and Indian intermixtures – created originally to facilitate the export of slaves and ivory).

Twenty years ago or so I lived in Kenya, doing a study of wild baboons. Before I left the States I started to learn Swahili, via a very up-to-date textbook. By the time the plane set down in Nairobi I knew some basic phrases and the rules for generating a few more. Two things inhibited my further linguistic growth after I arrived.

First, though Swahili was the official national tongue, Kenya had been an English colony prior to independence, and English had remained the language of commerce. When money talked, it spoke English, decreasing my need to master the language.

The second factor was that in those days no one in remote areas spoke true Swahili as his native tongue. Although the national radio broadcast in Swahili, all the rural folks spoke what is called “up-country Swahili,” a dialect that shunned textbook grammar in favor of simple, quick communication.

My friends over there directed me to two Swahili phrase books that I sometimes consulted, more for amusement than efficiency. The most practical way to learn a language, as everyone knows, is to learn from necessity by listening. And so I did, enough to get by anyway.

A few weeks ago something reminded me of those books. I tracked them down on the Internet, received them this week and finished reading them yesterday.

They are: “Up-Country Swahili: Swahili Simplified,” (originally published in 1936), by F.H. LeBreton, and “A New English-Swahili Phrase Book,” (ca. 1950), by B.J. Ratcliffe and Sir Howard Elphinstone. I’d forgotten how antiquated they were, and how reflective they were of the early colonial days in Kenya.

Colonialism was nasty and brutish over there, but certainly not short. For more than 80 years, determined English settlers in Kenya built ranches, plantations, farms, industries and a way of life based on the subjugation of the indigenous Africans. In many ways, a fair number of colonists managed to attain lives of luxury and privilege – but never lives of ease.
They fought the elements, the terrain, disease, heat, drought and wild animals. But most of all, they fought a daily battle to control native people who did not want to live “foreign” ways at the dictates of European masters for the sake of a few coins and the constant erosion of their personal rights.

The Swahili grammar and conversation books I recently read are filled with sample phrases. Each of them could easily be made into a short story.

Okay class, please translate: “This cook is very lazy.”

Next: “The companion of the teacher is a drunkard.”

Or: “They are witch-doctors.”

“You have ironed these clothes very badly.”

“The cook is beating the witch-doctor with a stick.”

“I am hitting the drunkard with a stick.”

On page 21 of “Up-Country” you’ll find a useful review section: “Using this chart, do the following exercises verbally, as fast as possible: TRANSLATE: I am hitting you. You (pl) strike us. They will hit them. We struck you. You have hit us.”  And so on, through the possible declensions.

Each day’s daily disturbances needed translating: drowned goats, stolen bundles, sick children, yaws, snakes. The cook has burnt the meat. The fool can’t follow instructions. Push the car till the motor turns. Saddle my mule. Did you lose my letter? I cannot stay here because the meat smells. A hippopotamus has destroyed our hut. The latrine is full of fleas. That man is a witch doctor – see that frog in his pocket? You have broken all the eggs again, where are your eyes and ears? The other day some hoes were missing. I am informed there is a plague in the town. The elephants have trampled the furrow and the water is running away. Boy, my razor and scissors are spoilt (SIC); they are still dirty with your black hairs.

Understandably, these are samples of the phrases the “wazungu” (Europeans/white people) needed to maintain their upper hand. But the books’ real sadness lies in the phrases that are missing. Nowhere will one find: Nice job. That is a beautiful sunset, is it not? Your food was delicious. How is your family? Life is a wonderful mystery, is it not? What hopes or dreams do you have? What school will your children attend?

These books are filled with phrases that allow one to talk about the dangers of living among wild animals, of the fears of crop failure, and of daily contact with exotic illnesses. In addition to talking of danger and disease, though, they also illustrate the nature of disrespect.

They also show how severely the colonial world was divided by the color of human skin and that white prevailed over black. (In the early editions of “Up-Country” the word “Europe” is always capitalized, the word “africa,” seldom is.) I’m amazed by all one can learn besides language from texts like these.

If you ever want to invent a parlor game where one must infer what a colony’s history was like by reading its grammars, these books would be a great place for you to start.
P.S.: Typing “enemies” in your browser’s address line will lead you to expanded versions of many of my past columns.

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