I have always been something of a linguophile. Prior to my senior year of high school, I did battle with my high school counselor, (which progressed to discussion with my school’s principal, then a vice principal) about whether or not I could take French instead of an “Occupational Education” class. (I ended up winning this battle, on the premise that, since I was interested in going to Georgetown and working in international affairs, French would in fact be more “occupational” for me than Horticulture or Yearbook. One of my motivations for choosing to come to Kenya, over an offer to work in Chile, was that I wanted the chance to learn a new language, Swahili.
Therefore, when I decided on Kenya, I tried my best to study ahead of time. I bought a book and some tapes, and resolved to study. However, besides a few instances where I practiced Swahili sounds and basic phrases while my roommates played FIFA, I never really managed. My plans to study during the year became my plans to practice as a study break during finals, which turned into something I would do during senior week, which then became a good project for me to work on during my week at home in Washington. However, for whatever reason I could never find the motivation to sit down by myself and study.
Fast forward three weeks and any issues concerning a lack of motivation have completely gone.
In particular, there are three reasons I now have all the motivation I need to sit down and study Kiswahili when I get home from work each day, regardless of how tired I am:
1. There is a guard who works at our house. Basically, he watches the property I live on at night. He is originally from Marsabit (the basic area I’ll be working) and accordingly, speaks Samburu, and some Swahili. He’s a really nice guy, and tries to periodically engage me, and every time he does, I think he is disappointed in how little I understand. He asks me the most basic questions, like “Where is Sarah (one of my roommates)?” and then listens, probably with some amusement, and my earnest but unsuccessful attempts to respond. Something that I do (really in life in general, but especially in language) is think that I might know what I’m doing, and sort to respond, only to discover halfway through the task I am completely in over my head. (This manifested itself in Argentina, for instance, when I realized what bus line I needed to take to get somewhere, leading to me confidently strolling out the door and getting onto the bus, only to discover I forgot the address of where I was going, and when I was supposed to get off. Womp womp). In the case of Swahili, this leads to me thinking “Oh, I know how to translate ‘go’. I can say this” “She went to Nairobi. She…. crap, I do not know how to say return, or tomorrow… awkward pause, then a shrug.” I’m hoping before too long, my guard and I can actually have some sort of conversation, that doesn’t a) begin and end with me thanking him for opening the gate and b) end with me shrugging my shoulders helplessly.
2. At the grocery store I frequent, there is a security guard with a metal detector who I always see, and who is always super happy when he sees me. While he knows I can’t really speak Swahili, he still enjoys engaging with me. We’ve progressed from saying Hello to each other to asking each other how the other person is doing. I’m hoping to actually be able to talk to him eventually.
3. Perhaps more than any other, I am motivated to learn Swahili to speak with three little Kenyan girls who live on the same property as me. They are probably all in the 4-8 range. One is the daughter of our guard, and two are the daughters of a lady who lives in a small house on our property and cleans. At first, the extent of our relationship was that I would give them high fives, and make faces at them when their parents weren’t looking. However, one day, when I was hanging up clothes, a saw a racquetball on the ground, and saw my chance to engage with them. I bounced the ball at one of them, and before too long, we were playing catch, then all four of us were throwing the ball and chasing each other. I was super pleased with myself, and ready to learn Swahili.
However, the next day, I found a complication, but further motivation. I discovered, it’s really difficult to discipline kids who are mis-behaving when you can’t speak the same language as them. When an older sister takes a branch and starts laughing and hitting her younger sister with it, it’s really hard to convince them to stop, when all you’re capable of doing is telling them “No” (Hapana) and grabbing the branch from them. Especially when there are a million more branches to find. Not that I’m sure I’ll ever be able to convince an 8-year old to be nice to her little sister, but I’m sure knowing a little more Swahili will help.