Ninajifunza Kiswahili, lakini ninasema kidogo tu.” This basically says “I am learning Swahili, but I speak only a little.” This is a phrase that usually comes up within a few minutes of any conversation I have with any Swahili speaking person here in Kenya. One of our first goals when moving to Kenya was to learn Swahili. We knew that speaking the language would give us better opportunities to connect with people, would show our appreciation of this culture, and would help us to better experience it. We quickly realized that, for multiple reasons, this was going to be a far more arduous task than we had anticipated. First of all, five days a week we work at Rosslyn Academy which is an English-speaking school, so on average days we have to seek out opportunities to speak Swahili. Secondly, we live in Nairobi. I have heard it said that it is impossible to learn to speak Swahili while living in Nairobi, though I must say that I have yet to find if this theory has been tested, but people assure me that it has been “said” by someone nonetheless. This is mainly because most Nairobians speak English fluently and prefer to communicate in English with wazungu because it is easier than waiting for the babbling foreigner to find his/her words in Swahili. Another factor is that a lot of young Nariobians speak Sheng (a slang mixture of Swahili and English and other Bantu languages) which is difficult to distinguish and comprehend because many common Swahili/English words take on new meanings. So, naturally, we thought that we would take advantage of trips to rural areas outside or Nairobi for full Swahili immersion. We soon found that this too was a problem. Kenya is made up of over 40 tribes. Each of these  has their own tribal language, but most also speak Swahili and some English. So if we visit Githinguri, for example, most of the people we hear speaking will be speaking Kikuyu, with Swahili or English occasionally mixed in. When we visit Western Kenya we may hear people speaking Luo, Luhya, or Kalengin. The same applies for every other area or region of Kenya, wherever you are usually determines what language is being spoken most. I have been told that one of the only places in Kenya where people communicate primarily in pure Swahili is on the coast, and based on our visits we would have to agree. All of this has led us to two realizations. The first is the Kenyans are amazing linguists, easily transitioning from one language to another and capable of speaking three or four (kind of sad compared to most of us Americans who speak one). The second realization is that it seems that becoming fluent Swahili speakers will be nearly impossible for us while living here. But, we will keep trying, continue studying, and hopefully one day it will all pay off. Tutangojea na tutaona (We will wait and see).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s