How many languages do you speak? In the U.S., the answer is generally “one” or, maybe “two.” In the countries I visited this summer (Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda), the answer is likely to be “at least three.”
Jamarose Onyango is the treasurer for the SIA merry-go-round savings group in Nairobi. She translated from the local language into English for us.
As our coordinator in Kenya, Dennis Kiprop, explained to me: “We first learn our mother tongue. The one spoken in our village. In schools, we are taught in English.” English is the common language between the countries and even elementary school instruction is in English. Then, along the way, they usually also pick up the national language. In Kenya, this is Swahili.
Looking at the national languages in Malawi and Uganda gets more complicated, though. There is great linguistic diversity in these countries and each language group wants their mother tongue to be the second official language. Perhaps surprisingly, English has becomes the neutral language, the one without ethnic identity.
Winkly interprets the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative member testimonies for us. (Malawi)
And so, wherever we went our conversations were a beautiful mix of many languages. In Malawi, the local language is Tumbuka. To greet people you say: Muli uli? (How are you?), pronounced more like “moody oody,” in my understanding.
The partners we met spoke to each other in Tumbuka. Then there was always someone to interpret for us, from Tumbuka into English. That person would also translate what we said back into Tumbuka. Sometimes the small business owner would know English and we would talk partly in English together. Interestingly, numbers are almost always said in English, even when the rest of the conversation is in Tumbuka.
Ruth (left) and her mother Catherine. Ruth was our interpreter when we visited Small Business Fund groups in Kasozi Village, Uganda.
Every place we went we had a designated interpreter for us. That person was always someone other than our local coordinator so that they didn’t have to both interpret and facilitate the meeting.
There was even translation that happened when we were all speaking English! At the Small Business Fund Coordinator’s Conference we had people from five different countries all speaking English, which made for a stunning array of accents.
Nalu, Dennis, and Boyd fill their plates and share a laugh at dinner.
One dinnertime discussion centered on the apparent subtle pronunciation differences between the words “walk” and “work.” To my American ears, those are completely different sounds! However, once you lower the vowels, as in British English, work doesn’t sound like “werk” anymore. And then, in the African accents I’ve heard, Ls and Rs are often interchangeable. (Meaning I can be confused if someone is named Alan, or Aaron.) With those two changes, you can see how “walk” and “work” could be similar! We all had a good laugh, using finger gestures to represent walking or working as we tried to figure out what people were saying!
Years ago I had plans to learn Swahili. It was going to be great – I could learn one language and impress partners in many different areas. Soon though, as you can now guess, I realized that Swahili wouldn’t be enough. Instead I just celebrate the many languages and learn at least the greetings, pleasantries, and words of gratitude in each local language. So, Jambo! Muli uli? And, webale very much!