The Art of Misunderstanding by I On Kenya

Posted on March 31st, 2011
Categories: News

With over 50 tribes, and countless mother tongue languages in Kenya, most Kenyans use at least three languages in their daily lives.  Swahili and English are the national languages for all, or possibly, the languages of none.  Similar to the jack-of-all-trades, master of none, the lack of mastery of any languages has created a ‘lowest common denominator’ language where English is stretched and pulled in entirely new, and often surprising, directions.

One of these often mystifying strands is called ‘shrubbing’, where ‘S’ and ‘Sh’, and ‘R’s’ and ‘L’s’ are interchanged.  For example, I recently visited a restaurant in Nairobi that has a difficult to find entrance.  I asked the car park attendant where it was and he said ‘Over by the light’.  His name badge said ‘Ndegwa’, and I instantly translated ‘light’ to ‘right’.  I found two Americans, lost but very close to the unsigned entrance looking up in the air saying ‘Which light?’ I spoke to a confused sounding man recently who told me that he ‘fist from a sip on the lake’.  I discovered that he was a fisherman and his ‘sip’ was a so-called ‘ship’.

Similarly, when introduced to ‘Rucy’, translate before calling her ‘Rucy’, or you may find your new friend gives you a hostile and glassy stare.  If you are introduced to a ‘lodger’, do not assume that this person rents a room in a friend’s house.  However, if you meet a ‘Roger’ he might just be a rent paying houseguest.  Shrubbing, is, as you can see, a minefield.

Similarly, the interchangability of ‘he’ and ‘she’, leads to much confusion.  ‘I was talking to your husband today and I told her…’ ‘Who?’ ‘Your husband – I told her that I wanted a roan’ ‘What is a roan?’ ‘A roan for my reave – but she told me…’  It goes on and on and what should be clarified by communication becomes increasingly confused.  On correction of ‘she’ to ‘he’, the conversation continues ‘Ah yes – he told me, by the way, that my reave was ok, but she wanted to wait for the lains before giving the roan’.

Asking for things in writing is no better.  Many mother tongues are spelt phonetically and this has been transposed into English.  For example, I recently received a quote from a builder entitled ‘Brilding Clotation for Lesidense’.  The builder is a smart fellow, with glossy company stationary.  The heading, as I told him, really let his presentation down. ‘Ah – my clotations are all like that’ – as if the fault was with me for not understanding hislanguage.

I have given up correcting; being a champion of ‘proper English’ is a loosing, if not lost battle.  Kenyans are poli-lingual, and in the big picture, the message is usually, conveyed in a mishmash of languages which gets the basic message across.

Being almost monolingual, it is easy to criticise the juggling of many languages and the gaps and confusion that are thrown up.  I have learnt to embrace ‘shrubbing’ and actually love the chaos it can introduce into the conversation and have adopted an ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ attitude – imagine, bling it on!

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