Wednesday, June 22, 2016
“It is unwise to be too sure of one's own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
When new missionaries or Peace Corps Workers are assigned to Tanzania, the first thing they do is take an intense, submersion multi-month course in the language. Sadly, these are very expensive. The cost was $3,000 each for Karen and I when we came, and we just couldn’t afford it. We only had $8,000 to build our mission and begin our service, and we just couldn’t spend that much on the language. So, we got a computer program to teach us and hired a local retired English teacher to come three times a week to teach us Kiswahili. We didn’t take to it like ducks to water, but over the years, I have not done too badly—I can preach in Swahili now and that’s what I wanted to do. There are some former Americans here who have been here for twenty years or more and never learned Swahili and they get by. I just prefer to know how to speak to people and what they are saying. They tell me that English is much harder to learn, and I have to agree. There is so much that can lead to mistakes. If someone who is just learning English is taught to say, “I like your shirt!” but leaves just one letter out—the “r” in “shirt”—the whole thing becomes very rude and embarrassing for all. Kiswahili has many such pitfalls and some just amusing coincidences, like the word for brother is “kaka” (check that word out in Spanish) and the word for butt is “tako” (does that make TacoBell “butt-ringer”?). Anyway, I made one of the biggest or at least loudest blunders of ‘em all at a big restaurant in Arusha. It’s easy to make mistakes in restaurants but that is also where you try to show off, as almost everyone wants to be able to order in another language. We did have one guest here get asked if she would like some “chai” or tea to which she replied, “No, I’ve just had some choo.” “Choo” is the Swahili word for bathroom, so you can imagine the surprised look on the waiter’s face. But back to me. The first things I always want to learn in a new language are how to ask about bathroom location and how to get some cold, safe water to drink. I had learned how to do this in Swahili for my first trip to Tanzania, and I managed comfortably. When we moved here a couple of years later, we stayed for the first two weeks with my friend, Pete O’Neal, in Arusha. He took us into a very nice restaurant there one day, and I was determined to show off for Karen and for Pete just how proficient I was in Swahili. When the waitress came to take our order, I first asked very loudly (you can’t impress people if they can’t hear you, and I wanted everyone to hear) for a bottle of cold water. In Swahili it’s mimi napenda chupa ya maji baridi or I would like a bottle of cold water. Unfortunately, that’s not what came out of my mouth. I made one tiny, tiny error. I changed the “ah” at the end of “chupa” to an “ee” so that the word became chupee instead of chupah. I said, very loudly, “Mimi napenda chupi ya maji baridi.” And, by changing that one little vowel, I changed everything. The waitress actually jumped back a little and the entire restaurant erupted in laughter. Seems I has just asked the waitress to bring me some cold, wet, men’s underwear. It’s not a mistake I’ve repeated, but as this is an oral culture and stories are told and retold endlessly, I still can’t go into that restaurant, even ten years later, without people laughing and pointing. Sometimes, it is better not to show off. The people here are very loving and forgiving if you try to speak their language and you can get away with a lot of mistakes but not ordering cold, wet men’s underwear in a nice restaurant. Just thought you ought to know in case you’re planning to travel to Tanzania anytime. You’re always welcome here and we can sleep sixteen, and if you really want, we can find you some cold, wet men’s underwear, but best not to ask for it.