The World In A Word, Nta kibazo, and Gorillas*

The history of the world in a word.   So today I was, of course, studying Kinyarwanda, and I looked up the word for “table”, which is amézá, with high tones on the second and third vowel, (but not to worry, I can’t remember that sort of detail yet myself).   The dictionary noted that the word comes from the Kiswahili word for table, which is meza.   Now, for those of you who know any Spanish, you probably can recognize the word mesa, the Spanish word for table.   So what I could see in this little chain of loan words is that, first, Spanish traders to East Africa brought, along with their tables, their word for them.  This word was then adopted by Kiswahili speakers, either because people liked it for some reason, or because they didn’t have tables, or the same type of tables, prior to the arrival of the foreign visitors and needed a word for them.  The KiSwahili speakers changed the “s”  to “z”,  and then the word was then subsequently passed on inland, perhaps along with the tables themselves, and arrived in Rwanda, presumably traveling through Tanzania.  Here, the Rwandese changed it again and added “a” to the beginning so it would fit into their noun classification system, and also added high tones for reasons we can only imagine.  Thus, it now sits in my Kinyarwanda textbook on my amézá, ready for me to add to my growing Kinyarwanda vocabulary.   And now I am passing it on to you in a blog, today’s method for sharing new words.   You now know both the Kiswahili word and the kinyarwandan  word for “table”!   Who knows where it will travel next?

Every time I see a Kinyarwanda word that clearly either comes from Kiswahili, or has the same Bantu origins as its Kiswahili counterpart, I feel like I have met an old friend.  In fact, so happy am I to see these words, that I have started a separate list of them, just so I can go back to see them together, hand-in-hand, once in a while and remind myself that I can, at least, speak one Bantu language reasonably competently.

I have discovered here that I am living proof of what is well-known to neurologists and linguists alike — the brain stores all languages in one place.  That is, it doesn’t compartmentalize. This has been a reassuring reality for me to know, because I always have interference from Kiswahili when I speak French, and I previously thought that this meant that there was something wrong with my language learning abilities.    Now, I know that this is natural.    So I was not surprised to see it sneaking into my Kinyarwanda.   But the reverse has also begun to happen:  Now when I speak Kiswahili, I have to mentally shoo a Kinyarwanda word or two away.  Furthermore, I sometimes can’t tell what language is being spoken to me!  So, for example, today when I went to pick up my fresh milk from the neighbor who gets it for me, and she spoke to me in Rwandan French, which is, admittedly, somewhat different in terms of pronunciation than standard French, I thought she was speaking Kinyarwanda.  So I said, in my very best Kinyarwanda, “speak more slowly”, to which she replied “I’m speaking in French”!    So now it is official:   In addition to my tongue being constantly tied in knots (as per my previous post), so is my brain.

On the subject of returning home to my Kiswahili origins, after having been told by Peace Corps that I could not visit Mombasa for my annual leave because Kenya was “off limits” for PC volunteers due to political unrest, I decided, as an alternative, to work with a safari tour company to design myself a gorilla safari, which was to include two days of gorilla trekking plus a climb up Nyirangonga volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has the largest active lava lake in the world.   Seeing it is considered a once-in-a-lifetime experience.   Just as we were working out the final details, I came across a general travel advisory against traveling in certain regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to continued rebel activity.  Immediately I googled “Peace Corps DRC” and discovered a pdf of an internal travel advisory for Peace Corps volunteers that stated travel to the exact areas of the Congo where my safari was to take me was forbidden for PC volunteers!    Not only could I not travel to Kenya due to political unrest, I also could not go to the DRC for similar reasons!    Undaunted, I thought to myself:  If the DRC is also off limits, then perhaps I could get myself to a coastal Kiswahili community that was not in Kenya.

I sat down to my computer, and did a bit more research on travel to Unguja (Zanzibar), where the dialect of Kiswahili, upon which the standards for the language are based, is spoken.  I visited there once in 1976, but have not been back since.   Ungunja is part of Tanzania, and Tanzania is the only country in East Africa, besides Rwanda, where there is no political unrest.  I was lucky enough to get the last room for the dates I wanted in a hotel that looked nice and was quite reasonably priced. December is peak travel season for tourists in East Africa, something that I remembered from years ago, but I honestly didn’t think that I would need to book this far in advance.  So, in a poetic serendipitous encounter with one vital (to me) piece of information showing up on the internet at just the right time, I was able to get myself into a nice space in a familiar place without having to pay and arm and a leg.  And I can cancel at no charge until December 15, in case things change again.  What a deal!!

To get to Unguja from Kigali, I have to fly on two different airlines, in addition to the 1.5 hour bus ride to Kigali from Ruhango, and a taxi ride from the bus station to the airport — Rwandair and AirPrecision.  AirPrecision apparently only operates in Tanzania, which suggests that I will be taking an itty bitty plane to get from Dar-es-Salaam to Unguja, after traveling on Rwandair from Kigali to Dar.  The flight is only 40 minutes.  There is a ferry, but the schedule wasn’t any better coordinated with the arrival of my Rwandair flight, and the cost was more-or-less the same, although a two hour ferry ride might be fun.    But I can take a day trip by ferry to Pemba, another island, where I have never been before instead.

Figuring out air travel options in East Africa seems almost as complicated as trying to speak four languages.  Still, despite my disappointment about seeing gorillas any time soon, I felt triumphant:   Perhaps I couldn’t get to Mombasa (Kenya), or the DRC, until Peace Corps releases me, but I certainly can get home to a native speaking Kiswahili community!

The correspondence with the hotel in Unguja was humorous:   My first email was in Kiswahili.  They responded in English.  I replied back again in Kiswahili and, low and behold they finally got the message and all subsequent correspondence has been in Kiswahili.  Yes, they said, we can get you at the airport and, yes, you can have a refrigerator in your room.  In fact, what they said was that, as their guest, I am mfalme (king)!!   Meaning, I surmise, that they will do their best to get me whatever I would like.   I am looking forward now to being mfalme for a week; it reminds me of the old TV show called “Queen for a Day” which  aired from 1945 to 2004!!   I just looked it up; I had no idea it ran that long!

I’m not too worried about the gorillas. Given all the efforts to protect them, their numbers are growing, as the naming day ceremony (see earlier post) attests.  I am almost as sure that they will be waiting for me to meet someday as I am that the Nyiragongo volcano will still be visible.  For the moment, I will remain nestled in the protective, policy-filled arms of the Peace Corps. I suspect that, anytime something goes wrong, they write another policy.  But, in the end, you can’t anticipate everything.  I applaud their intentions, even if they get in the way of some of mine at times.

Of course, I could redesign a trek that was solely in Rwanda, but I’d rather wait awhile and see if I can’t also get to the volcano.    Since more than 40 years have passed between my first trip to East Africa and I find myself finally here again, I realize that time is relative; plans come and go, as do dreams.   And things work out over time.   Sometimes they work out as you imagine, sometimes they don’t.  I wanted to go to Kenya, and couldn’t.   Why be upset because I cannot go to the DRC either?

My more relaxed approach to what looks to be a great travel disappointment may also be due to the fact that I have been living here long enough to have slipped into the nta kibazo (no problem) philosophy that permeates the culture.  (For those of you who saw The Lion King, this is the Kinyarwanda version of Hakuna matata in Kiswahili. )  In my various experiences living in Africa, things always work out eventually, but never in the manner one anticipates, and certainly not in the expected time frame.  And, of course, sometimes the outcome is better than what was originally imagined!    It never affects the outcome to worry or … to hurry.    I watched the movie Bridge of Spies recently.  Based on a true story, they were negotiating the exchange of a Russian spy for two Americans and, of course,  series of problems were encountered that had to be resolved before the desired outcome could be achieved.  At each hiccup, the American negotiating the deal would ask the Russian spy f he was worried.  And each time he answered “would it help if I was?”  I think the same perspective holds here with regards to hurrying.     I don’t think I have ever seen anyone hurry here.   People stroll from place to place as if time did not exist which, of course, it doesn’t.

Of course, a more cynical voice might say that my time is running out, given that I am now entering my 67th year on this planet.  My reply to such a naysayer would be quite simple:  “Nta kibazo… If my time runs out before I see a mountain gorilla, I will never know the difference!”

*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.