I’ve always believed that you can never really understand a culture until you learn the language. Seemingly simple things, like the words people choose in everyday conversation, reveal much more about their traditions and values than many people expect. That’s why I’ve decided to try and learn Kiswahili. I had my first class last Thursday, and my attitude towards language was quickly affirmed.
The first thing I learned about Kiswahili, and in turn the Swahili people in general, is the importance of the greeting. Here, it is considered an insult to refrain from greeting someone; and an even greater insult to fail to respond to someone’s greeting. This seems common and fair enough, but in Swahili there are many different types of greetings and very specific responses to those greetings. The Swahili people spend quite a bit of time greeting each other, especially people they respect. It’s not just a quick “hello” and head-nod. Often times, people will go through a sort of list of many different greetings and responses before carrying on a conversation. For example, a single session of greetings can go something like this:
Hodi hodi     -Karibu!
Habarai     -Nzuri
Hujambo?     -Sijambo
Salama?     -Salama
Mzima?     -Mzima
Mambo?     -Poa!
Habari za leo?     -Nzuri
Karibu Kiti     -Asante!
These greetings will be some of the first things I try to learn. I felt a little embarrassed as my teacher was explaining them to me, because I thought about all the times people were greeting me and I had no idea what they were saying, much less how to respond. Oh well. I’m sure people understood I’m just a clueless mzungu and wasn’t trying to be rude.
Another interesting thing I learned from my Swahili teacher is that the Swahili people (as far as language is concerned) aren’t particularly comfortable with using negatives. For example, if someone asks how you’re doing, and you happen to be sick with Malaria or some other horrible ailment, instead of responding, “I’m not well” or “I’m sick,” you would respond “A little well.” (kidogo mzima in Kiswahili). There are a few other cases we learned about where you use “a little” (Kosovo) instead of using a negative.
Anyway, I just thought this was all very interesting, and worth writing about. I can’t wait to learn more.
I also thought this poster my teacher had hanging in the classroom was pretty funny:

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