Excuse Me, What Was That?

While the business language in Nairobi is English, most Kenyans speak Swahili and their tribal, or mother tongue, as well.  Tom and I did study Swahili for a little while, and Tom learned how to greet people and say good-bye in almost every Kenyan language. He could even order his lunch in Kikuyu!  I'm not very good with languages.  I have learned some Spanish, some German, some Swahili, some Afrikaans.  But when I get in a situation to speak, I get confused about which one I'm supposed to use to answer.  Even words in English can be difficult for me to follow, as you will see in the article below...(reprinted with permission).

One day, sitting in a hotel lobby waiting to meet a friend for lunch, I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me.  Both our friends were late and as we talked, my new acquaintance commented that the woman she was waiting for couldn't "keep time."  Too embarrassed to ask what she meant, my first thought was, "oh dear, can't she tell time?"

Another day I went to visit a friend at her office only to find that she was out.  She phoned later that day to apologize for "bouncing."

Then one sunny day a short time later I was sitting outside my apartment as three girls stumbled out of another apartment laughing.  Prompted by my questioning look, one of the girls explained that her sister need a "push" to work.  And off they walked down the driveway.

Words are funny things.  They are meant to express thoughts, feelings and ideas.  Communication halts abruptly, however, unless both parties understand the common jargon used in a particular place.
I experienced this a little bit when I moved from Michigan to New York City.  In the Midwest, for example, we drink "pop," but in the Eastern States it is called "soda."

Many times since moving to Nairobi I have been stopped in my tracks as I hear new expressions.  Instead of my phone being out of order or my shoes ruined, they both get "spoiled."  If a miss an appointment with a friend, I've "bounced" her.  In the past if I wanted to confirm an appointment I might have said, "Now you won't stand me up, right?"  Nowadays I say, "We won't bounce, right?"  Sometimes I feel like a rubber ball or a bad check.

Even my name causes confusion in Nairobi.  Lori isn't common.  It is usually heard as Maureen, Bory, or Mory.  I finally figured out a sure way to help my new friends know what to call me.  Cargo trucks here are called lorries.  So now, when I get on the phone or meet a new person I say, "my name is Lori, you know, like the truck, a lorry."

My husband has picked up on this as well.  He often introduces me now exclaiming, "this is my wife, Lori...she doesn't look much like a truck, though, does she."  It may not be flattering, but it usually works and we click.

Click.  Now this one is interesting.  The meaning makes sense, it just not commonly used where I'm from.  If we click, we understand one another.  And that's important, especially if we're standing around gassing.  What?!  You know...shooting the breeze...gassing...talking...making small talk.

And then there's switching.  I know what you think.  We're turning the light on and off.  Not quite.  In Kenya, instead of sleeping, you are switching.  I know, it made no sense to me either. 

One of the most common - and most confusing - subjects people talk about here, though, is where a person resides.  I asked a new acquaintance one day where she lived and she said Mathaiga.  Mathaiga is a two day journey from Nairobi by public transportation.  So I thought she was just visiting Nairobi.  No, she said, she stays in Nairobi.  She has stayed here for years, but she lives in Mathaiga where her family is from originally.  Obviously, at first we didn't click and I needed some help.

As I learn these new meanings to words, I've been amazed how quickly I can adapt to using what to me is a new slang.  It's now quite natural for me to give guests a "push" and escort them out when they must leave.  And I naturally talk to my friends about keeping time and meeting me promptly at the time we discussed.  Even the phrase "let me give you my contact" rolls easily off my tongue.  No one here gives out their phone number.  It is their contact.  I'm learning new things almost every week.  I wonder what it will be next.
Lori ZieglerComment