Five days a week, I awaken to the creaking of our compound gate being opened, followed by a clear, high-pitched noise. It’s our cheerful Swahili teacher, Mwalimu Jean, whistling to summon the wuzungu students for the morning lesson. Mwalimu speaks Swahili and French, among other tribal languages. Unfortunately, he speaks no English. NONE. Therefore, our lessons usually consist of pantomime, charades, or pictionary. When those methods fail, we resort to a professional liaison: the French/English Dictionary.
One morning a few months ago, Mwalimu was teaching us new vocabulary, specifically referencing transportation. Here’s how the lesson ensued:
Mwalimu: Scribbles the new vocab word on the chalkboard: gari. He starts the explanation in French, which has remarkable similarity to English, “Gari. Signification: automobile.”
Me: Affirmative. I nod to indicate understanding: gari = automobile.
Mwalimu: Writes the next new vocab word on the board: forbeifo. He gives many clues, tries to articulate it.
Me: Blank face. No clue.
Mwalimu: Draws a rudimentary sketch on the board, pictionary style.
Me: “Does it mean truck?” I look it up in the dictionary, pointing to the corresponding French word.
Well, it would’ve been an epic fail with any other teacher. But Mwalimu is tenacious and persistent. Pausing to think of another way to define the word, he eventually explains that this is the type of gari driven by the Kasali family.
Then, he writes on the board: 4WD.
Wait for it.
Wait for it.
Oprah is now delighted (well, she would be if she was taking Swahili lessons with me), because I finally reach the Aha! Moment.
Me: This is why I love Swahili. Because I get to laugh. A lot. The illusive word I’m struggling to grasp is really just a bad spelling and pronunciation of English: for-bei-fo = four-by-four, four-wheel drive
I’ll allow you to imagine the rest of our lesson, conducted in a similar manner, with words like:
piki piki = motorcycle, moto-taxi
ndege = anything which flies (bird, airplane)
meli = anything which floats or moves on the water (boat, ship)