Our guest this week is Jenny Carless, a nonfiction writer, amateur wildlife photographer, novelist-in-training, and safari addict. She is currently working on her first novel, which deals with elephant poaching in Kenya.
Thanks to Heidi for inviting me to contribute to Novel Adventurers. I enjoy reading everyone’s posts and am pleased to participate!
I fell for the animals, people, and landscapes of Kenya when I first visited in 2003. Since then, when I’m not in Kenya, I seem to be planning my next trip to Kenya.
|Leopards are notoriously shy.|
And while it’s the giraffes (OK, and other fauna, too) that lure me across 11 time zones and a pair of far-too-long flights, I’m also intrigued by Kenya’s many languages and rich cultures. Kiswahili and English are the official languages in Kenya, but you must add to those nearly 70 tribal languages spoken by the Masai, Kikuyu, Samburu, Borana, Luo, and many other ethnic groups.
As any traveler knows, even if your conversation skills are limited to hello, goodbye, please, and thank-you, making at least some effort is a fantastic way to connect with locals.
I made the most of this on my recent safari, two months ago. Because I was in research mode (gathering information for a novel in progress), that attitude spilled over into my language learning, too. As a result, I had some of the most fun I’ve had with my guides and the camp staff—and I think it was because they really appreciated my faltering efforts to learn their languages.
|Good news for endangered African wild dogs: this one is pregnant.|
So many languages, so little time…
I’m enchanted by the many ways different cultures express things. For example, bon appétit in Kiswahili is Karibu kwa chakula – literally, “welcome to the food.” I love that!
There are also regional idiosyncrasies in English. My favorite is “bitings,” the Kenyan word for snacks. A Zimbabwean friend says he doesn’t think any other English-speaking countries in Africa use this term—and when he first came to Kenya, he hadn’t a clue what they were talking about.
Even when I can only catch a word here or there, I enjoy simply listening to the sounds as others speak. To my ear, Kiswahili is very melodious. Lala salama (“sleep well”) rolls off the tongue so easily. Even “garbage” (takataka) sounds pretty!
|On safari, we eat "bitings" while enjoying spectacular sunsets.|
Accents add an additional dimension to the enjoyment—and I hear English spoken with many more accents in Kenya than I do in California. Kenyans themselves speak English with a rich, tuneful voice that, in my mind, reflects the musicality of Kiswahili. Beyond that, on this trip alone I spoke with people from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Swaziland, New Zealand, England, Finland, Belgium, and more.
A team effort
In October and November, I visited three different Kicheche camps (Laikipia, Mara Camp, and Mara Naboisho). One of Kicheche’s specialties is finding incredibly friendly and helpful staff—even when it comes to language lessons, as it turns out.
In addition to peppering my guides endlessly with questions about wildlife, I asked them and the camp staff for help with Kiswahili. Soon, it felt like a team endeavor, with everyone enthusiastically teaching me a phrase or two each day. They also seemed tickled when I threw out something new. (How did you sleep? See you tomorrow!)
|I'd love to learn to speak giraffe.|
I even learned a couple of phrases in Ma from one Masai guide. That night, when I said supa (“hi”) to my night guard, and then ashe oleng (“thanks very much”) when he delivered me safely back to my tent after dinner, I was rewarded with a big grin. And guess what? He was chattier when I saw him the next evening.
My intensified effort to learn Kiswahili upped my enjoyment so much on this trip that I’ve come home inspired to keep it up. In fact, I may look for a tutor. So, if anyone knows a native Kiswahili speaker in the Monterey Bay area who might be interested, please let me know!
Then, once I make inroads with Kiswahili, I’d like to learn to speak giraffe…
All photos (c) Jenny Carless