Tag Archive | Swahili

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!

Today has been an umeme kind of day.

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!


On being called mzungu

I’ve always had trouble convincing people to call me by my name.

I’m constantly correcting strangers, acquaintances, even relatives.  “It’s Megan, not Meh-gan.”  “With a long e.” “Yes, spelled M-e-g-a-n.”  And this minor correction, about something as fundamental as my name, inevitably opens the floodgates to a long diatribe about grammar, vowels, consonants, phonetics, and spelling. It’s spelled wrong, they insist. It should be pronounced Meh-gan, they argue. Why don’t you change the spelling, they suggest, that would make things easier.  For who, I wonder.

And then there are those who launch into an apologetic story about how their friend / mother / sister / aunt / cousin is named Meh-gan and so, they say distractedly, perhaps checking their phone, you’ll forgive me if I slip up and call you Meh-gan too.  And I think to myself, no, two different names entirely, and I will not forgive you if you cannot remember my name.

When I was fourteen and shy and in the throes of junior high, I nearly gave up the fight.  It started when the new math teacher mispronounced my name on the first day of school.  I was scared of him, and fearful in general, and the thought of raising my hand to correct him in front of the entire class was unfathomable.  And so I let it go.  It happened again and again and soon it was too late to say anything.  I learned to respond to Meh-gan.  As the weeks passed, I almost believed it was my name.  And then parent-teacher interviews came along, and my parents corrected the math teacher, and the next day he asked me kindly why I never had.  There is no good answer to that question.

I’ve come to hate the name Meh-gan.  This weak woman who I am not.  This identity that is not mine.

And so I understand that names and words are important.

In Tanzania, nobody mispronounces my name as Meh-gan.  Instead, I am called mzungu.  This word is yelled at me at least several times a day, flung across the street, used by children who are trying to get my attention, street vendors, colleagues, bajaj drivers, strangers, my landlord.  It means “white person” or “foreigner”, or so I am told.

I still don’t know quite what to make of this new name.  This label.  I asked my Swahili teacher about it, and he reassured me that it is not meant to be derogatory.  “The melting pot or mosaic metaphor doesn’t apply in Tanzania”, he said, “so the mzungu stands out.”  A woman I work with confirmed that she views it as a neutral term, not meant to cause alarm or offence.

Wikipedia explains that the term mzungu originates from the Swahili root zungu, which literally translates to “one who wanders aimlessly”.  According to the website, the term was used in the colonial context to describe European explorers, missionaries, and slave traders who traveled through East African countries in the 18th century.

I’m not a European explorer, missionary, or slave trader, but I do have a few things in common with them.  The privilege to wander aimlessly, for example.  To climb the highest mountains, to drive through the Serengeti, to fly to tropical islands for weekend adventures.  With the added comfort of knowing that if I get lost there is someone out there who will help me get back home.  This is no small thing.  Especially when one lives in a place where the average annual income is $280, and people travel out of necessity, to find work in an urban area or to escape conflict from a neighbouring country.  The freedom to wander without purpose is not universal.

To live in Dar as a mzungu is to live with an ugly history.  Even today, white skin means safe passage to the nicest restaurants and hotels without a questioning glance or a second thought.

The use of the term mzungu makes race and post-colonial relations tangible and immediate.  It’s not a pleasant term.  And it’s uncomfortable.  Maybe that’s why my expat friends object to it so strenuously.  Maybe that’s why they have started a Facebook support group for themselves, the aim of which is to eradicate the use of this word.

I won’t pretend I like being called mzungu.  I would prefer to be called by my name.  I kind of like the strong ‘e’,  especially after all we have been through.  But at least the word mzungu has a history and a meaning that I can try to grapple with.  A context that those of us who are living in this borrowed country should all try to come to terms with.  It’s no slip up.

Unlike the term Meh-gan, which implies a lack of meaning and a lack of thought.  “So sorry I let that slip”, they always say sweetly, “you must correct me if it happens again”.

So call me mzungu if you want.  Just don’t ever call me Meh-gan.

Lost in Translation

This post is inspired by my friend, MW.

Since arriving in Tanzania, it has become evident that I will somehow have to immediately become fluent in Swahili.  Court documents and legal proceedings are drafted and conducted in English, but all of my co-workers converse in Swahili and bajaj drivers give far better rates if you can haggle with them in their own language.

I have been trying to set up Swahili lessons with J, who is highly recommended.  The following is our recent chain of emails:

From: Megan
Sent: September 30, 2011 at 3:00 pm
To: J
Subject: Swahili Lessons

Hello J,
My friend and I have just moved to Dar for six months and would like to take Swahili lessons.  We are both beginners and are wondering if it would be possible to try an hour long lesson with you this coming Tuesday.  We work during the day so are only available in the evenings after 6 pm.

Please let us know.

From: J
Sent: September 30, 2011 at 3:49 pm
To: Megan
Subject: Swahili Lessons

Hello Megan,
For Thursday next week I will have other students at the same time and beyond.  We can try Wednesday if that will be ok for you.  Thanks for the interest.


From: Megan
Sent: September 30, 2011 at 3:51 pm
To: J
Subject: Swahili Lessons

Hi J,
Does Tuesday work?


From: J
Sent: October 2, 2011 at 2:00 pm
To: Megan
Subject: Swahili Lessons

Fridays and Saturdays will  be fine for me starting this week for the next four weeks, there after we can work out the new time table.
Best regards,


Am I right to assume that Tuesday does not, in fact, work for J?


A picture of my office

Karibu is the Kiswahili word for ‘welcome’ and it is a word that I have heard frequently over the past week.  “Karibu Tanzania” (welcome to Tanzania) is a popular refrain around the hotel and in shops and restaurants.

I started work at the legal aid centre this past Monday and the greeting was used over and over again as I was introduced to the other lawyers and staff to mean, “you are welcome here”.

Each work day also starts with a series of intricate greetings, which are important in Tanzanian culture and which I am just starting to learn.  To a colleague who is my age, I say mambo (what’s up?) to which she replies, poa (I’m cool).  To the woman across the hall I say habari gani (how are you) to which she replies, nzuri, asante (fine, thank you).  To the senior advocate down the hall, I say shikamoo (greetings, to an elder) to which he replies marahaba (greetings).  And then we start work.

The centre’s offices are located in a small two-storey house at the end of Ufipa Road, in Kinondoni.  I share an office with two other lawyers, L and J.  We are a bit crammed at times, as a steady stream of clients pass through our office every day.  L and J both see clients in our office, sometimes at the same time and sometimes offering advice to each other’s clients during meetings.  Layers upon layers of Kiswahili for me to try to decipher.  Sometimes the stories are translated for me after the client leaves, and I am struck, after the fact, by the lines that crease her face and the immediate nature of her problems.

Power failures are frequent.  Last week, we did not have power on Wednesday or Friday.  I am told that we were lucky that we had power on Monday.  On days when there is no power, it is harder to get work done because the computers can’t boot up and the phones can’t ring.  There is also no air conditioning on such days, but the boardroom has windows on all side and the surrounding palm trees can stir up a nice breeze.  We usually bring our laptops and work until the batteries run out.

And then we say kwaheri (goodbye) and tutoanana (see you).

View from my office window