Category Archives: Learning Swahili

Chai Tea Latte

Starbucks  may list it on the menu, but their baristas fail to serve authentic chai.

Chai originated in East Africa. In fact, the Swahili word for tea is chai.

And here, chai is more than tea, spices, sugar, and milk.

A cup of chai. A drink to nourish the soul.

The aroma of the spices wafts, “welcome home.”
Milk strengthens the sick like salve to a wound.
Warmth washes away the worries of the day.

Chai says, “be fully present”.
Never consumed alone, chai is community. Turn off the phone, ignore the distractions. Share a cup and share your heart with the company around.

Chai says,“slow down, breathe”.
Hurry only hurts the soul. Chai provides the anecdote by offering rest.

Chai says, “give thanks”.
For God’s providence in this cup. For the life you are living. For the guests you are visiting.

Tea Time
Next time you order a chai, channel its African roots.

Embrace the culture of chai. There is no such thing as a “to-go” cup because in and of itself, chai says “stay”.

Calm your spirit. Savor the moment. Drink up the blessings.



A Birthday Sikukuu (see-koo-koo)

To my knowledge, there is no Swahili word for ‘birthday’. Imagine that. Throughout much of Africa, the anniversary of one’s birth is not really a Hallmark celebration.

So why then, in America, do we make such a big deal about birthdays? Maybe to make us feel significant, esteemed, loved…

In his book, Don’t Waste Your Life, John Piper opened my eyes to realize that our Western culture has a distorted view of love which tells us that to be loved is to be made much of. And making much of ourselves seems to be our specialty.

It makes perfect sense then, that we raise the roof on occasions such as birthdays. We don that golden Burger King crown, announcing that the world ought to serve us on OUR special day.

Think about it. When was the last time you attended a child’s birthday party? On that day, life revolves around them. They run the show.

I wonder, are we not perpetuating selfishness and materialism at these birthday hooplas?

We start this training early on by throwing a bash before the child can even talk…Happy 1st Birthday, Baby!

As the child grows, so grows the party. Not to mention, the quantity and quality of presents. Soon enough, parents are spending exorbitant amounts, hosting extravagant parties at expensive venues. Don’t even get me started ranting about those Super Sweet 16 birthdays.

For the record, my favorite birthday was 1988, the year I turned six. Mom made a She-Ra birthday cake and all my friends gathered at the local swimming pool. (Not sure how those two were even related, but Mom did her best to fulfill my every bizarre request…why wouldn’t she, it was MY special day?)

I suppose if we’ve fallen into our culture’s notion that to be loved is to be made much of, than why wouldn’t we want to use a day to improve our children’s self-esteem and make them feel good about themselves?

    Happy Birthday to Me

    A few days ago it was my birthday. And to be brutally honest, I wasn’t looking forward to it. Its not that I feared turning another year older, in spite of the fact that I’m now 28. The reason I wasn’t eagerly anticipating my birthday was because I had no one around to make much of me. I longed for fellowship with family and friends, yet here I was in a brand new country, alone.

    I feared that without cake, candles, or song—not to mention the absence of friends and family—I would feel unloved, worthless, unappreciated. Would I even hear one live voice wish me a happy birthday?

    A subtle reminder

    On that day, I awoke early to the sound of the children singing. I can’t yet understand Kirundi, but the familiar tune brought the lyrics to mind.”This is the day that the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” In His grace, God reminded me that its not about me. Lord, this is Your day. Its not my day. Help me to decrease so that you might increase. Thank you for giving me life through your Son. May I delight in Your love today.

    And much to my surprise, God gave me a birthday sikukuu. (As I mentioned, there is no Swahili word for ‘birthday’, but it certainly was a sikukuu = festive and eventful day; contraction of two Swahili words: ‘siku’, meaning ‘day’ and ‘kubwa’ meaning ‘big’.)

    Here’s how the day transpired:

    • In the morning, I sat with Goreth as she hand-washed mounds of dirty clothes. Yes Mom, I watched Goreth wash. Please don’t be too disappointed. Numerous times I offered to help, but she wouldn’t allow it. So I sat beside her. And as we sang hymns together in perfect harmony, God washed over my heart and saturated it with peace.
    • Arriving at Amahoro, the remainder of my morning was spent combining fabrics for new handbags. My presence and advice brought reassurance to these women who have longed for design direction. Seeing the delight in their faces was mental encouragement which energized my creative spirit.
    • Returning home in the afternoon, I snacked on fried plantains and pineapple juice. Goreth’s children insisted that we dance to African music videos and in doing so, they gave life to my weary body and planted joy deep in my heart. Such laughter. Such good dancing…those kids got rhythm.

    If I had it my way…

    …I would’ve been in America, celebrating with friends and family. Even here in Burundi, I was tempted to take the day for myself. Enjoy some ME time.

    But by allowing God to use me on that day—though I would’ve much preferred to stay in bed, curled up with a book—He showed me that “the really wonderful moments of joy in this world are not the moments of self-satisfaction, but of self-forgetfulness.” (John Piper)

    See How Easily You Can Learn Swahili

    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.

    Mwalimu: “Hapana.” Taking the dictionary himself, he attempts to look up the French word. But the dictionary is too limited. We’ve been defeated. Fail. Epic fail.

    swahili teacher

    Mwalimu Jean

    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)

    How difficult can it be to book a flight?

    A journal entry prior to leaving for Vienna:

    As I’ve been arranging to leave Congo, the realities of this country have become increasingly evident to me. Take for instance, the purchase of an airplane ticket.

    I don’t exactly know why, but everything in Congo seems to be difficult, if not, next to impossible. Today our transportation service is having a protest; when they are on strike, life proves even more arduous. And since there’s no transportation today, I walked 1 1/2 hours to and from the airline headquarters. I’m trying to book a flight out of Congo for a brief respite in Vienna. This airline exists solely in the Congo and the headquarters are located in a large concrete building with a tin roof. The office is quite generous, approximately 20 ‘x 30’. Perhaps it seemed even larger because of the stark absence of furnishings. There are two wooden desks, each with three wooden chairs. The main desk has a credenza on which an antiquated, manual typewriter rests. Only one thing on the walls–a world map—which denotes Congo as Zaire and still recognizes Yugoslavia.

    The airline representative is named Safari, which ironically means “travel” in Swahili. After engaging Mr. Safari in several rounds of charades combined with a broken mixture of Swahili-French-English, I’m convinced I may never get to leave Congo. In order to get a flight, Safari must use my cell phone to call a satellite office in Butembo (a city 2 hours outside of Beni, from which I will begin my journey). He must verify that there will be room on the plane for me. But the cellular signal is  poor awful, so he must retry. Retry. Retry. Retry. He attempts to make this phone call about 13 times over the course of an hour and finally he is able to confirm that there is a seat for me in Butembo. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a cell phone so he relies on mine to do his  job. After all these calls, my phone no longer has credit. So naturally, Safari requests $5 and runs out to the nearest stall to purchase another chunk of airtime for my cell. He still must call Bunia (another city) to verify that this leg of the journey has enough space on the aircraft as well. Not less than two hours after first entering this time-warped office, he has confirmed a seat on the plane bound for Entebbe, via Butembo via Bunia, departing next week. Unsurprisingly, this plane only flies 2 days per week because such an antiquated vessel requires a full 5 days of maintenance…very reassuring.

    So, how do I pay for my ticket? Cash only. Now when do I receive my ticket? Well, I must wait because Safari’s boss is the only one authorized to issue tickets and the boss, I’ve been informed, has gone out to have lunch. Thus, Safari and I are just chilling, making small talk through that awful mashup of languages…for another 45 minutes. (Did I mention that Congo has been teaching me patience?)

    Now when the bossman arrives, he takes the cash and pulls out a small notebook with carbon-transfer paper. He hand-writes a ticket for me and before I know it, I’m leaving the office.  And as I leave, ticket in hand and the promise of western civilization soon ahead, I pause to consider the scenario which just took place. How is it that purchasing an airplane ticket can be such an ordeal? Outside of Congo, it takes a mere three minutes to book a flight online. But not here. No internet or online ticketing. No phone system. No electronic printing. No credit cards. Why is this process so anachronistic? What will it take for Congo to emerge from such primitiveness? What propels a society and a civilization forward?

    a view of Congo from the airplane

    Lessons Learned from Disney

    As an American youngster in the late 1980s, early 1990s, my childhood was well-fed by Walt Disney’s animated films. Lately I’m beginning to realize that the Disney movies of my youth served as more than simple entertainment. They provided essential lessons whose value I failed to recognize until I stepped foot in Africa.  Humor me as I reflect on the top 10 lessons I learned from that Magical World of Walt Disney:

    10. French Language Skills

    From Beauty and the Beast, a classic tale set in rural France, I gained a basic French vocabulary. Music from this film taught me a handful of words such as: Mademoiselle (Miss), ma cherie (dear one), lumiere (light), jour (day).

    9. Hospitality

    Beauty and the Beast also taught about hospitality in “Be Our Guest”… Why would this be significant in Africa? Well, Congolese practice the “drop-in”. If you haven’t seen a friend for several days, if you want to meet the new neighbors, or even if you just want to hear some gossip, drop-in and pay someone a visit, no advance notice is even necessary. Friends, acquaintances, even strangers are warmly welcomed into the house as guests of honor. Sit down to have tea together, or even a meal, and enjoy one another’s company.

    8. Living with roommates

    Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs prepared me for what I would experience living in a house with seven others. Although they certainly don’t resemble her dwarfs, my roommates each have very unique and distinctive personalities. I’ll refrain from any identification or correlation to Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey.

    7. A cheerful presence uplifts the home

    Snow White did more than teach me tolerance. From this fairytale, I also learned a trick to maintaining a joyful spirit amidst the mundane. Snow White was responsible for cooking and keeping house for the seven dwarfs. This work proved less laborious when she whistled or sang…”when hearts are high the time will fly so whistle while you work.” Here in Congo, every Mama embraces this philosophy. In a place without modern conveniences, Mama spends all day cooking the meal, tidying the house, and hand-washing clothes. Whether to pass the time, set the pace, or stave off boredom, the Mama is always singing or humming some merry tune.

    6. There’s no place like home

    The Little Mermaid warned against developing a yen for a far away place. Ariel learned that its better to embrace life where you are than wish for someplace you are not. While living in America, I used to fantasize about a simpler, slower pace of life. Now living in Congo, I fantasize about life in America, wishing for its ease and convenience. This is when I must remind myself that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.  So I guess I’m still learning the lesson: there’s no place like where you are now. Embrace it and be fully present.

    5. Everything tastes better with a little sugar

    Mary Poppins is a film which emphasizes good manners. The part from the film that I recall most vividly? A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in the most delightful way. Fortunately nowadays, most meds are in capsule or pill form. Thus, this lesson is best applied to foreign foods. Some of the Congolese food — goat meat, grasshoppers, fish brain, monkey, or even just the insects crawling on my food — has a strong potential to cause nausea. On such occasions, I am relived to have a soda (made from pure sugarcane) to wash down my food.

    4. It’s a small world after all

    Stemming not from a film, but rather an exhibit at Disneyland, this lesson sings of unity throughout the earth. Visitors to the “Small World” exposition ride in small boats along a lazy river in the spirit of Gulliver sailing round the world. Here in Africa, I’m realizing the truth of that exhibit. For example, I recognize the music of my favorite English hymns sung at church, and although the lyrics are in Swahili, the melody is the same. Also, I have a friend who frequently wears a Green Bay Packers sweater (from the 1960s), reminding me of the frozen tundra where I grew up. And in the marketplace, I’ve seen Milwaukee Brewers baseball caps (secondhand). But my favorite reminder of home lately has been the children and adults who love to sing Michael Jackson songs, although they haven’t a clue as to the meaning of the lyrics.

    3. The bare necessities are all one truly needs to survive

    The Jungle Book, set in a remote village in India, gives useful advice regarding life away from the big city. “Don’t spend your time lookin’ around for something you want that can’t be found. When you find out you can live without it and go along not thinkin’ about it, I’ll tell you something true: The bare necessities of life will come to you.” As you know by now, here in the isolated town of Beni, I’m learning to live without many luxuries that I previously viewed as necessities. I quickly learned to halt my futile search for things such as: a newspaper, high-speed internet, snack food, quality coffee, chocolate. And as it turns out, Baloo and Mowgli were right, I’m learning to survive on the bare necessities…which are not so bad, after all.

    2. Swahili vocabulary

    watercolor sketch of an african simba

    What Beauty and the Beast did for my French language acquisition, The Lion King did for my Swahili. Vocab essentials found in the cast of characters: Simba (lion), Rafiki (friend), Pumbaa (careless one), Sarabi (mirage), Shenzi (savage). Furthermore, my respect for Disney greatly increased upon learning the accuracy of the animation which depicted Kenya’s landscape (Pride Rock and the Savannah). My Swahili instructor still cannot comprehend why I am able to remember the word for lion, but cannot seem to memorize the vocabulary for other animals.
    1. No Worries

    By far the most important lesson for my time in Africa comes from The Lion King, specifically the absentminded warthog, Pumbaa. His motto for life is “Hakuna Matata”. Sung throughout the film and accurately translated from Swahili, it means “no worries” or “no problems”. Since I first stepped foot on African soil, “hakuna matata” has been a resounding theme. Slowly but surely, I’m learning how to stop worrying and release my need for control. Type A personalities are countercultural. Plans frequently change by the hour and without flexibility, one could never survive.

    So, I’d like to offer my sincere appreciation to the Magical World of Walt Disney which has prepared me far beyond what I could have ever imagined.


    Despite my top-of-the-line mosquito net, DEET repellant, and my daily dosage of anit-malarial drugs, I have somehow contracted malaria.  The leading killer in Eastern Congo has now taken over my body. After a week of intense headaches rivaling migraines topped off by a sour stomach which prevented eating, I reluctantly agreed to go to the hospital. Reluctant because I had previously visited this primitive compound and was well aware of conditions there. Without going into detail, I’ll say that it leaves much to be desired regarding safety, sanitation, cleanliness, and comfort.

    Nonetheless, my housemates insisted that I get tested and the results revealed not only Malaria, but also, a worm in my stomach. Actually, the doctor referred to it as a “Nyota”…swahili translation: snake. Ah, yes. I have a snake in my body. Very comforting.
    So how am I feeling? In all truthfulness, I cannot remember a time when I have felt so miserable. My bones and muscles ache to the point where it is impossible to find a comfortable position in which to rest. Although the headaches have subsided, the fever continues as does the vomiting and diarrhea, no doubt my body trying to rid itself of this parasite in my blood. Yet, I have begun the typical five-day course of treatment and as of day four, I am finally beginning to feel a bit of relief.
    Somehow throughout all this, God is graciously allowing me to recognize how blessed I am. I know that sounds bizarre, so allow me to explain:

    • I am blessed to have the resources to get adequate treatment and medication.
    • I am blessed because unlike the Congolese, my absence from work does not put my job in jeopardy nor does it threaten my financial stability.
    • I am blessed to have a houseful of other wuzungu (white people) who have walked this path before and are able to encourage me on my road to health.
    • I am blessed because in addition to her prayers, Mama Furaha has been making me a special passionfruit elixir, which is promised to fight the fatigue and restore energy to my body.
    • I am blessed to have several students drop by to extend their sympathies for my suffering and bid me “Courageaux”… translation: have courage.
    • I am blessed because the illness has allowed me a small glimpse of what the Congolese suffer on a daily basis.

    Thank you all for your prayers and encouragement as well. I hope to have my strength back soon and share about some of the other things that are happening here in Beni.

    Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

    We have two chickens at our house, Dume (doo-may) and Dike (dee-kay) whose names come from the Swahili words for male animal and female animal, respectively.

    Dume has a fierce cockadoodledoo which is guaranteed to wake the entire neighborhood at whatever hour of the day he chooses to wield it. Some days he’s awake at 5am, other days he chooses to crow at 3pm. The one thing you can count on is never knowing what time he will break out into that song.

    Dume, our proud rooster.

    Dike is calm, collected, and does her job of supplying us with 2-3 eggs every few days. We’re still trying to train her not to lay eggs in Brandon’s bed though…

    Dike, our hen

    Dike, our hen.

    Brandon's bed, Dike's egg.

    Hopefully within the next few days I’ll introduce you to my other housemates…

    Lost In Translation

    Recently, while at the Women’s Center making smalltalk, I shared that my favorite Congolese food thus far is kalangiti. The women erupted in laughter. Apparently, the literal Swahili translation of kalangiti is “small blanket”. The women were amused, but very confused as to what really was my favorite food. Fortunately, Chelsie explained (in her near-perfect Swahili) that I enjoyed maragi which is the correct word for “black beans”. Much to my dismay, their laughter continued.  Evidently, black beans are considered slave food because they are so readily accessible and inexpensive. A typical Congolese would never admit to eating, let alone enjoying this food…so to hear this wealthy mzungu claim slave food as her choice meal was simply more than they could fathom.

    Lest you think I am failing in my Swahili lessons, I would like to explain how I came to confuse the word kalangiti with the word maragi:

    Most days at UCBC, Mama Madoe cooks (and sells) black beans and rice to the students for lunch. To avoid the negative connotation associated with maragi, the black beans have become well-known at the university as kalangiti

    Off now to fill my stomach with some small blankets, a.k.a. black beans.