Friday, January 6, 2012

“Welcome to the Food” – and other fun phrases in Kiswahili

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


  1. Jenny, what fun. I love to listen to the sound of words, even when I don't know them. Years ago, when I had learned very little Italian, three of my favorite words were: fiammifero (match) based on the word for flame; telefanano (they telephone) for the repetition of the an "an" syllables; and professoressa. The ending "essa" is added to nouns to make them feminine. I silently laugh whenever someone calls me professoressa.

  2. What fun adventures, Jenny! I hope you'll blog with us sometime about what you see in Kenya outside the wildlife reserves as well. In the meantime, "lala salama" is my new phrase, btw. Does "lala" really mean sleep, as in when we say "he's in lala land"?

  3. Patricia, I agree that Italian is another beautiful language. Speaking of "-essa" endings, I love "principessa" (princess). Some friends and I used to tease another friend and call her that. I love the sound of it!

    Supriya, I'd love to share more about my Kenya experiences; just say the word! Yes, "lala" means sleep (I think the verb is kulala). I hadn't ever thought about "lala land" being tied to this. I'd always thought it referred to Los Angeles (LA)! :-)

  4. Jenny, I enjoyed reading this. So often we remember trips taken and locations observed through the photographs we take. You've reminded me of something our cameras aren't able to capture--the richness of sound. I am rethinking all of my travels and remembering wonderful accents and intonations.
    Ashe oleng,

  5. What a wonderful post! You make me want to go to Kenya for so many reasons! I also love language and love accents. I guess because I am a "language person" and pick things up fairly quickly, if I'm in a place where English is spoken, I tend to start taking on the accent that I hear around me. My kids hate it because they think I'm doing it on purpose, but it just comes out! In fact, I'm in Hawaii now and probably don't sound the way I do when I'm back in California. Would love to go to Kenya and see if some that beautiful accent would stick!

  6. Supa, Bianca!
    You're right; there are so many different ways to experience -- and remember -- our journeys. Aromas are very evocative, too. For example, peppermint tea will always remind me of a friend in Switzerland. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

    Nancy, I know exactly what you mean about picking up accents. I feel like I'm an "accent chameleon," too, and it's most definitely unintentional, but I notice it.

  7. Jenny, I love your photos. Especially the leopard with its tail half hidden in the weeds. The different ways that languages have of expressing the same thing is one of the things that makes it so fun to learn them. It shows how people in different cultures think.

    Thanks for blogging with us today, and we'll definitely ask you back sometime to write more about Kenya!

  8. Thanks, Heidi. Being out with the animals in their natural habitat is simply magic to me.
    I look forward to contributing again in the future... thanks again for the invitation!