How to curse in Swahili
I haven’t learned any real Swahili swear words yet. Unsurprisingly, my Swahili teacher has been less than forthcoming with this information, choosing instead to concentrate on the eighteen different noun classes and their associated grammatical rules. So I’ve made up my own: umeme.
Umeme means electricity in Swahili and, given the frequent blackouts in Dar, it is a word that I’ve come to associate with frustration, anger, and despair. And it rolls off the tongue in a satisfying kind of way to convey irritation in a variety of different contexts.
Umeme it’s hot today!
Or, shouted loudly to the guy who follows me around Mwenge Market, asking repeatedly if I am married. Umeme!
And, to the taxi driver who speeds up to kill me when I try to cross the road – umeme umeme umeme!
Yesterday was hot. Unbearably hot. The kind of hot that makes you want to take a shower every three minutes, plan a trip to the North Pole, and climb into the freezer. All at once.
So its not surprising that at about 4 pm, just as I was trying to decide whether I still had the will to live, the electricity went out and my ceiling fan squeaked to a stop.
The temperatures in my apartment quickly ascended from uncomfortable to intolerable. I began to hunt for the generator key.
I have a small generator that I use very infrequently. I think I’ve only spent about $6 on petrol in the last five months. This is because turning the generator on is usually more effort that it is worth, and the machine is not big enough to power a fridge or even all the lights in my apartment. It can, however, keep my fan rotating if I turn off my lights and unplug all of my appliances.
At 11 pm last night the temperature was still well over 30 degrees Celsius and I knew any attempt to sleep without the fan would be futile. So I coaxed the generator on and fell asleep to its steady hum.
It ran out of petrol at 1 am. I woke up as soon as the fan stopped spinning, immediately covered in a thick layer of sweat.
It was a long and sleepless night. I passed the time by counting down the days until the rainy season and by researching the temperatures in Madagascar, where I plan to travel in April. At one point, I tried to sleep on the floor, where the tiles are cool, but it was too uncomfortable. And I was worried about a nighttime encounter with a cockroach. I turned on my shower, drenched my bed sheet in cold water, and wrapped myself up in it.
This morning I staggered around the apartment and wondered if I was dizzy from the heat or the lack of sleep. I cursed TANESCO, the generator, and the empty petrol container.
The electricity was still out when I got home from work. Not wanting to endure another hot and sleepless night, I decided that I would brave the rush hour and catch a bajaj to the nearest gas station so that I could buy some petrol. As often happens in Dar, what should have been a simple trip to the corner gas station became an exhausting odyssey.
When I got to the BP station, all the lights were off and the workers were sitting in a circle, laughing and playing Tanzanian checkers. They explained to me that they were all out of petrol, and suggested that I try another gas station a bit further down the road. They were out of petrol too. So was the next gas station I visited.
An hour and a small fortune in cab fare later, I was hot, sweaty, and irritated. But I had a small plastic container with enough petrol to last the night. I felt mildly victorious.
The electricity came back on as soon as I opened the front door to my apartment.
Umeme umeme umeme!