Saturday, August 06, 2005

Swahili Freedom

Like every good child of the television age, I knew one word of Swahili before I ever set foot in Africa.

Uhuru. It means freedom. This might include the freedom for sexy African-American women to wear hot mini-skirts while performing their duties as communications officers on the Kirk-era Enterprise.

But Uhuru—and the three other Swahili words I know—doesn’t help me here. The problem is that there are a lot of languages in Uganda, and you don’t know who speaks Swahili and who speaks something else entirely.

Officially, the language of Uganda is English. But I have tried using my English in the mini-bus taxi and it hasn’t worked.

“Stop,” I said when I wanted to get off. My destination went sailing by. This happened several times before I clued into this: no one had any idea what I was saying.

It’s not just the difference in our accents or the interesting formal English of the Ugandan people. It’s because you don’t say “stop” when you want the minibus to stop.

You say “mah-sow.” I don’t know how it is spelled but that’s how it sounds. It means “just ahead.” Or if you want them to pull over into the next bus alcove (there’s a few of these), you say “stehge.” It’s “stage,” actually, but when I said that with a hard “a,” that didn’t work either. Say it like a Ugandan.

My name, Marie, does not work here. It doesn’t exist (or in lots of countries). Here my name is “Mary.” This has resulted in some interesting conversations. “Ah, Mary, mother of god.” Or my favorite, when the woman at the photo developing place broke into a chorus of “Mary had a little lamb.”

In Murchison Falls, I am not “H.M.’s girlfriend,” or “H.M’s partner.” No, I am his “Madame.” It is a term of respect here, not the owner of a brothel.

My favorite formal language story came from Andrea, a friend of H.M.’s from their days together in Sudan. Andrea lives up north and works with an HIV-awareness project.

One day, Andrea and her husband had to leave their Land Cruiser at the mechanic’s. A friend dropped by and asked a neighbor where she was.

“Where is Andrea?”

“She is home.”

“But the car is not here. Where is the car?”

“The car is sick and has been admitted.”


Ed Ward said...

Except that the good Lieutenant's name in Star Trek was Uhura. As I'm sure some good Trekkie will be around to mention before too long.

I'm enjoying this, and will be checking in for further adventures.

Marie Javins said...

Maybe that's the Swahili word too... my fact-checking is limited to how long I'm willing to wait for search engines to load...

Anonymous said...


It is interesting to read about Uganda from a (foreign) tourist's perspective. Below is some literal translation:
maso=infront (in Luganda),
awo =there (in Luganda),
Muzungu =white person (in Luganda, Swahili and other african languages)