My first really serious love affair dates back to late 1966. It was with a young Tanzanian teacher that I met at a writing workshop at the then-University College Dar es Salaam. I suppose you have already inferred, from my mention of a Tanzanian, in Dar es Salaam, that Kiswahili had something to do with my affair. Tanzanians speak Kiswahili, and in Dar practically everyone speaks it, all the time.
But it was not quite as clear-cut as that. I, as you know, came from Uganda, where very little Kiswahili was spoken in those days, and I could not claim any proficiency in the lingo after barely a year of residence in the coastal city. I certainly could not boast of a Kiswahili fluency sufficient to conduct the delicate and intimate dialogue that love, as I recently suggested to you, is supposed to be.
But “pene nia pana ndia” (a non-standard way of saying that where there is a will there is a way). In any case, my beloved was a teacher of English and she was every bit better at it than I. So, we really communicated in English most of the time.
This was particularly true of the love letters we wrote each other, and there were many, because my friend lived and worked several hundred miles away from Dar, and we mainly depended on what you call “snail mail” today for our regular sharing.
My friend was, however, generously willing to introduce me to her friends and relatives when she was in Dar es Salaam and on the few occasions when I visited her upcountry. I suppose those are some of the signs of a relationship with which you are satisfied, and of which you are proud. On such occasions I would struggle to put my best foot forward and murmur and mumble the necessary Kiswahili polite phrases and formulae — and there are many — to my new acquaintances.
LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE
Predictably, however, I would soon run out of my meagre Kiswahili resources, and when the really spirited banter, the gumzo or soga, got under way, I would be conspicuously left out. Eventually, one of the company, quite often my own girlfriend, would say, “Jameni, huyu mwenzetu tumemkunja mno” (literally, “People, we’ve too long folded up this friend of ours”). I would protest weakly that I was all right and I was following the conversation. Inwardly, I was feeling deeply touched by this gesture of typical Swahili considerateness.
Anyway, the upshot of such encounters was that I was strongly spurred on to acquire and master an adequate level of Kiswahili. I immersed myself in D.V. Perrot’s Teach Yourself Swahili and her English-Swahili Dictionary. I sharply pricked my ears and skinned my eyes to the Kiswahili examples given in my linguistics lectures by my teachers, especially my beloved Mwalimu Mohamed Abdulaziz and the late Wilfred Whiteley.
I cultivated the company of my Tanzanian comrades, like Euphrase Kezilahabi, John Ramadhan, Crispin Haule, William Kamera, Clement Maganga and Ebrahim Hussein. Kezilahabi and the Zanzibari Ramadhan did not talk much, but Kamera, Maganga and Hussein were delightfully bubbly and it was always a joy listening to them. Hussein’s dramatic genius was already showing through his irrepressible inclination towards mimicry.
Listening to these talented and fluent speakers of the language blessed me with an effortless exposure to the rhythms and cadences of Kiswahili that I still struggle to emulate today. Maybe this is why Kenyans routinely “catch me out” whenever I am not watching my accent.
Indeed, listening is what I mostly did in those days, gradually getting to feel “comfortable” in the language, the way a pre-speech baby does, even when not fully grasping the meanings and structures of the utterances. It is surprising how readily these hidden reserves come to the user’s benefit when needed.
I also took advantage of my being fully blanketed in a Kiswahili environment in Dar es Salaam. Apart from the hours we spent in the libraries and lecture and seminar rooms, the language around us was Kiswahili. Whether in church, in the market, on the streets or on the Number 6 bus to Ubungo and the university, what one heard and communicated in was Kiswahili. Even on the campus, in our free time, Kiswahili was the medium among the majority of students.
With my appetite whetted by the urge and desire to fit into the company of my girlfriend’s people, I enthusiastically immersed myself in all this, and the outcome, as I realise now, is my famous-notorious infatuation with — no, no, unconditional love for — Kiswahili. I found myself living, laughing, crying and loving in Kiswahili for a significant spell of my young years, with recurrent intervals throughout my life.
My personal love affair did not work out as rosily as I had expected in my fond and silly youthfulness. But that is a story for another day. What I know with certainty is that that beautiful relationship did not leave me empty-handed or empty-hearted. It left me incalculably rich with, among other things, a language that is a treasury of beauty, history, literature and culture.
PEOPLE OF MANY LANGUAGES
It may not be my mother tongue, it may not be my first language, but it certainly has a claim on me, and I have a claim on it. Taking liberties with Muyaka’s famous poem “Simuwati Muwatiwa”, I may say, “Sikiati kiatiwa, naradhiwa kufa nacho” (I don’t abandon what was left me, I’ll rather die with it). What was left me from Dar is Kiswahili.
This year has been declared by the UN as the International Indigenous Languages Year, and International Indigenous Languages Day was celebrated this week on Thursday, February 21.
We are all people of many languages, and we are always negotiating our delicate paths among our first, second and other languages, official and national languages, with all their implications.
But Kiswahili, bila shaka (without a doubt), is the main indigenous language of East Africa. Am I an impartial judge?
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]