Here’s my impressive contextualised skill: I have learnt to carry things on my head. I am also a complete convert to it. What is heavy in my hands is light on my head. It’s not that hard to do, especially once you work out some of the tricks to it.
Here’s my unimpressive language moment: when someone’s asked me how I will carry my basket (or whatever), I’ve said ‘Nitaweka kichwani’. Literally that’s ‘I will put it on my head’ but the sense of it is more like, ‘I’ll whack it on my head’. Sometimes I’ve used, ‘Nitabeba kichwani’, ‘I will carry it on my head’ which sounds slightly less stupid.
However, the other day when I said that to my tomato lady, Mama Glory, she replied, ‘Utajitwisha.’ I didn’t know that verb so I asked her about it and it turns out it’s the verb for ‘to carry something on your head’. I was super excited to pick up that bit of vocab so I can use the correct word rather than a roundabout explanation for what I was doing.
Then I walked out of the market and everywhere I went I heard people saying, ‘Mzungu anatwisha kikapu’ – the white person is carrying a basket on her head. I have no doubt that they were saying it last time I walked out of the markets with a basket on my head too – white people who do things in a Tanzanian way are always a spectacle and commented on – but I did not hear it last time. Sure, I had heard them commenting on me, but I missed the verb, the specific one for ‘to carry on your head’. Once Mama Glory had told me though, I heard it everywhere.
This is what language learning is like. Learning one word, especially if it’s in context, doesn’t just open up one sentence – it opens up a whole world of interactions. That’s also why when people tell us that all we need is enough Swahili to make ourselves understood, we don’t buy it. It’s not just about the credibility you get from not sounding like an idiot. It’s also that you understand the world around you better and so are better able to engage it.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.