• Kannelle Hughes

Of my Inability to Speak Swahili🥲

In every country I lived, people always think of me as a local. That is, until I open my mouth and speak. It has its advantages but it also comes with its set of drawbacks.

A few years ago, I went on holiday in Tanzania, an East African country. Having been colonised by the British, English is the official language alongside Swahili which is much more widely spoken and understood. I don’t have East African traits but I’m black so I guess that’s that… 🤷🏾‍♀️ To this day I remember how much people mocked me - no lie, whole streets would be pointing fingers and laughing at me - because I didn’t understand Swahili. As I traveled with a “mzungu”, it's highly likely people thought that I was indeed Tanzanian but just bougie and acting like I was better than everybody else by pretending I couldn’t speak the local language. It used to frustrate me (and piss me off, let’s be honest), cause dang me’en understanding ayu for true man!

Okay I get it, you want to make the other person feel bad, thinking that they are belittling you and being condescending. However, it’s exasperating being judged based on assumption rather than truth. It would have taken a whole of 3 seconds, to ask whether I was Tanzanian or not. The world is so vast, black people come from literally everywhere and somehow you have the nerve to not only consider that I should speak Swahili but also to laugh at me because I don’t? Nice, real nice…

Now in Kenya, can anyone guess the second official and national language… Swahili you say? That would be correct! Needless to say, it brings back the BEST memories EVER (I’m being ironic for those that didn’t catch it). No one jeered at me yet, but I do get some looks when I’m on the bus and the agent speaks to me in Swahili and I softly sigh and admit I don’t understand, same when the Uber driver calls, when someone addresses me on the street. “I don’t speak Swahili” has become my #1 sentence. If I got 100 bob every time I said it, I would probably have around 10K by now. At least, they’re much more gracious than Tanzanians, they simply raise an eyebrow or shoot me a funny look. Some will actually ask “you’re not Kenyan?” and with a decided smile I answer “No, I’m from the Caribbean”. Them: “Ah, Jamaica!!”… 😅

Language is opening yourself to a new culture. Language is integration. Unlike many internationals who come here, I will make the effort to learn. Even if the vast majority of Kenyans speak English, even if, in reality, I don’t actually NEED to. It’s a matter of respect, of appreciation, of truly living out a new experience. Allow me to be frank for a minute. Unless I stayed sheltered in the bubble of the large international community based here working at the United Nations and the likes, it makes me uncomfortable not knowing enough to blend in, bringing unnecessary attention to myself and simply to feel the unspoken pressure of passing for a local yet expressing myself as a foreigner, which I am. And I should be here for at least the next year so might as well.

Luckily for me, it’s an easy and logical language from a grammatical standpoint and - unlike dear French - it is written the way it is pronounced. My problem is vocabulary. It looks and sounds like nothing I already know, so it’s difficult to build bridges and find shortcuts. Each new word I learn, I simply have to memorise. I have a pretty good memory, but contrary to popular belief, I don’t have an affinity for languages. At all. I dislike speaking Spanish - unless I’m teasing, my Portuguese is basically Spanish, I understand Creole quite well but you won’t ever hear me speak it and my level of Dutch is lower than a snake’s belly crawling on the ground.

I’m still waiting for classes so as of right now, I’m learning by myself with an app but mostly 🗣️FROM DA STREETS hahaha and my colleagues.

Ayu wish me luck hein!


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