It’s English! It’s Kiswahili! It’s…Kiswanglish!
Ok, don’t bother commenting on how lame I am, because I already know. But I also know a special American-in-Tanzania dialect of language about which I’ve been fielding scores of questions lately, mainly due to a full month of visitors and my increasing inability to recall details of American life. So I’m using this opportunity to clear some things up. The following is an abridged list of Kiswanglish terms, some of which have been mentioned in previous blogs, and their approximate definitions. Also included are some Anglophone-friendly explanations and real-life usage examples.
A small disclaimer: We all know those people who go off to foreign countries, learn new languages, and return with slightly annoying and somewhat sententious habits of “accidentally” slipping words from their new languages into their English conversations. True, this is often unavoidable. Our brains form linguistic habits which are sometimes hard to break, and our tongues have muscle memories. (When I got back from France, it was terribly difficult to remember to excuse myself with “sorry” instead of “pardon” – or, in NYC, not to excuse myself at all.) Other times these foreign language interjections are just methods of showing off a newfound brilliance in a non-native language. Kiswanglish is neither of these. Americans in Tanzania use Swahili terminology in everyday English because there simply is no alternative. Supposed English translations are inadequate or entirely inaccurate. That is why I’ve done my best to provide felicitous explanations for the most commonly used Kiswanglish words, so hopefully you’ll understand me next time you see me, in December, and I unwittingly drop a “duka” or a “pole” into our conversation.
The glossary (arranged in alphabetical order):
Supposed English Translation: (n.) bathroom / shower room
Actual Definition: A space devoted to bathing, sometimes including a tin ceiling and a cement floor with a drain (as at my house), but typically consisting of a dirt floor, 2-4 stick and/or mud walls with (occasionally) a thatched roof. Never includes a shower or a shower head; rarely includes a faucet of any kind.
Additional notes: If a person says “I’m going to the bathroom,” (s)he means (s)he’s going to the bathroom. Maybe the speaker is at a fancy hotel, or maybe visiting a friend in town or in Europe. If the speaker is lucky, (s)he is home for the holidays. But in the village, we Americans in Tanzania say we’re going to the bafu, because really, we’re going to the bafu. We’ll probably carry with us a bucket full of water and a pitcher, because those are the tools of bathing.
Real-Life Example: Since I live by myself, I usually don’t close my bafu door when I oga.
Cross-references: choo, kuoga
Supposed English Translation: (n.) toilet
Actual Definition: A hole in the ground serving as a depository for human waste, sometimes including a porcelain bowl set in the ground and/or a slide pipe to carry waste into a “septic system” (as at my house), but more frequently consisting of a deep dirt hole in the ground, usually with two cement blocks on either side (that’s where you put your feet!).
Additional notes: Some of the nicest choos flush. Mine doesn’t, so I just pour some water down after each go. Again, at a safi hotel, I’ll say I’m going to the bathroom. In the village, I go only to the choo.
Real-Life Example: While the men were trying to push the bus out of the mud pit in the road, I had to pee so badly that I went to the farmer’s house and asked to use his choo.
Supposed English Translation: (n.) coaster
Actual Definition: A large, rectangular vehicle somewhat resembling an oversized VW van, usually with about thirty seats and a maximum capacity of infinity.
Additional notes: A coasta is essentially an oversized daladala, except it’s usually reserved for longer trips.
Real-Life Example: To get from Njombe to Iringa, you can stand in the aisle of the big bus for about three hours, or you can sit on a coasta for at least five hours.
Cross-references: daladala, konda
Supposed English Translation: (n.) N/A…no one’s even tried.
Actual Definition: A minivan, sometimes oversized, and sometimes with a raised roof to make standing more, um, comfortable. Serves as public transportation in and around big towns. Usually contains about seventeen seats and has a maximum capacity of…did you think hippies stuffed themselves into VW Beetles effectively? Think again.
Additional notes: In Kiswanglish, the redundance of this word is overwhelming. We shorten it to “dala.” There is no filling up a dala. Just when you think there is absolutely no more space, and you can’t possibly be wedged any further into the hairy, sweaty armpit of the smelly old man with no teeth who’s standing on your ankles, the driver hits the breaks, everyone sways forward with the same breath of inertia, and the konda welcomes three more passengers. The good news is, there are usually a few broken windows through which to stretch cramped limbs. And don’t worry for you’re your life on Tanzania’s undersized, unpatrolled roads, because most likely, the vehicle’s doors and cracked windows are painted with the name and face of a prayerful patron of safety, like Jesus, the Pope, or 50 Cent.
Real-Life Example: His butt was hanging over the window’s edge, and her boobs were draped over a nun’s face, but the dala still stopped to pick up eight new passengers!
Cross-references: coasta, konda
Supposed English Translation: (n.) shop
Actual Definition: Indoor, usually dirty, kiosk-type selling station with a counter behind which a customer stands to request items, which the seller will then retieve from behind the counter.
Additional notes: With the exceptions of specialized dukas and safi dukas, nearly all dukas sell the same items at the same prices, even if they are next door to or across the narrow alleyway from each other. In the words of one of my December visitors, “In Tanzania, I have not seen a single duka that, were I to see it in America, I would even consider buying anything from.”
Real-Life Example: (One Peace Corps Volunteer consulting another) You know that one duka sort of across the street from the curtain duka, the one with the really nice Mama who always takes 100 shillings off the price of toilet paper?
Supposed English Translation: (n.) 1) stove; 2) kitchen
Actual Definition: 1) Squat (about ten inches high), round stove powered by charcoal or kerosene; 2) Cooking area without running water, where food is stored, cooked, and eaten on the floor.
Additional notes: Yeah…we don’t have jikos in America. And we don’t have lighter fluid in Tanzania.
Real-Life Example: 1) I spent an hour trying to light my charcoal jiko yesterday, and I was fanning it with a bucket lid when my neighbor came over and laughed at me before she got it going full-blast in under three minutes. 2) We cut the vegetables on the floor of her jiko and then fried them in oil until they were soggy.
Supposed English Translation: (n.) conductor
Actual Definition: While a Tanzanian bus konda does collect money and hand out tickets much like an NJTransit train conductor, he has many other responsibilities unique to his nationality and his phonetically-spelled and abbreviated job title. A konda’s additional duties include but are not limited to: organizing fifty-pound bags of flour, sugar, etc. underneath the seats of the bus to maximize leg room and minimize spillage; refereeing spats (or fist fights) over stolen assigned seats; safely delivering bush mail (envelopes making their ways from senders to recipients by way of one or several bus dashboards – these envelopes often contain the life savings of senders); waking up dozing passengers who have reached their destinations; coaching the bus driver and directing bus pushers out of mud pits; playing mechanic to broken down buses.
Additional notes: For us Peace Corps Volunteers, it’s essential to make best friends of the kondas who run the buses from the villages to town, because kondas are important people who can help you out a lot or screw you over big time.
Real-Life Example: My konda gives me a 500-shilling discount every time I go to town because he’s trying to get me to marry him.
Cross-references: daladala, coasta
Supposed English Translation: (v.) to fetch
Actual Definition: Well, ok. I guess this one actually does sort of mean “to fetch.” But we use the phrase “kuchota maji” – “to fetch water.” And when’s the last time you used the phrase “to fetch water” in America? It just doesn’t feel right in twenty-first century English.
Additional notes: In Kiswanglish, the final “a” often gets dropped, making the more typically used form “chote.”
Real-Life Example: We went to chote maji, but the well was broken. (Or, more accurately: We went to chote maji and we broke the well.)
Supposed English Translation: (v.) to bathe
Actual Definition: To use a pitcher repeatedly to scoop water out of a bucket and pour it over the body in an effort to cleanse oneself/remove the ubiquitous dirt and dust of Tanzania. Additional notes: This word does not mean “to shower.” More often, the tone with which it’s said intimates, “Damn, I miss hot showers.”
Real-Life Example: I’ve been too lazy to oga this week, so maybe I smell a little.
Supposed English Translation: (adj.) clean
Actual Definition(s): Clean, cool, ok, excellent, American, new, great job, sparkling, washed, shiny, I get it, stellar, we’re done here, I agree, etc. etc. etc.
Additional notes: Probably the most frequently-used Kiswanglish term, with the possible exception of pole. It’s most often used to describe nice hotels with hot showers, safe buses with big seats, and other comparatively luxurious experiences. But it’s assigned permanently to certain dukas which sell safi items such as oats, ketchup, and wine.
Real-Life Example: Let’s stay at that safi hotel tonight so I can take a hot shower and finally wash my hair.
Pole (pronounced “pole – ay”)
Supposed English Translation: (?.) sorry
Actual Definition: I’m so sorry. It must suck to be you right now. Please accept my condolences and let’s move on from this awkward moment.
Additional notes: Definitely the most important and most frequently-used Kiswanglish term. It’s good for any situation (i.e. someone falls in the dirt, someone fails a test, someone gets robbed, someone’s family member dies, someone’s bus falls over in a mud pit, someone sneezes, someone stubs a toe, someone breaks a sternum), and can be used genuinely or insincerely.
Real-Life Example: Pole that your cat got eaten by your villagers.
The Inconclusive End. Enjoy your day.