Maneno n’amagambo*

 So…. Recently, someone whom I first met, and studied with,  45 years ago as an undergraduate student studying Kiswahili and sociolinguistics in southern California, tracked me down and contacted me by email.    He was the only linguist anywhere in the area with whom I could study Kiswahili and our mutual obsession with maneno ya Kiswahili (Kiswahili words) gladdened my heart as we pored over Kiswahili texts and listened to recordings of native speakers from the coast of Kenya and I listened to him explain to me what their significance was.   Oh my goodness, but his was a brilliant mind.  We became friends and, for a few years after I graduated, we stayed in touch.  Our paths had “crissed” and “crossed” until, eventually, we lost track of one another.

I believe that he played an important role in my getting into the linguistics department at UC Berkeley as a graduate student, at a time when the department was famous for its work in what was then the new up and coming theory of language — transformational grammar.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, everyone who was anyone wanted to be there.  Only 1 out of every 15 applicants clamoring for admittance was invited into the esteemed halls of the Department of Linguistics at UCB.   But my professor, one of my references, was an old and trusted friend of the head of the department.  I don’t know what was said, but I got in.

It’s funny how one single act of unselfish kindness can alter the path of a life for decades to come.  I hadn’t really thought about this until now but, in some ways, because of that single “good word” he put in for me at the university, he has always been part of what followed   Were it not for his influence so many years previously, I might never have come to be where I am today.   Of course, I would have been somewhere else, but probably not here.

My plunge back into Bantu linguistics with my study of Kinyarwanda, has made me nostalgic for the “good old days”, when all we did was study and talk about the complexity and beauty of Bantu language structure.   So when he contacted me, I thought, why not?    He initially asked me to send him my maneno and so I did.  He asked me for more maneno and I obliged.  My fingers spilled maneno across the screen as they chatted with themselves.  He had known my mother, who liked him, and my husband, who felt threatened by him.  We had colleagues in common, as well as our various exploits in East Africa to talk about.  I could talk about people and events from my past in ways that are only possible when both parties know the characters in the lila  (play, or illusion, from Sanskrit) of a life.

My communications became, for me, a self-reflexive journey into the past. I approached them much in the same way that I approach my entries for this blog, trying to create short (or, in some cases, not so short ) “vignettes”, or inturu (“stories”, in Kinyarwanda).   Each had an end and a beginning, and, whenever possible, a comment about whatever insight I had had, about myself, about the world, and/or about my experiences living in a world comprised solely of the meanings that I make from my experiences, through the process of reflecting upon those experiences.

I read something he had written and, suddenly, it happened.   The curtain fell, the theater of maneno emptied as quickly as it had filled when he originally contacted me.    I woke up….          All the precious minutes that I was spending time writing to my friend was time that I previously would have spent studying Kinyarwanda.  Did I really want to miss my today to think about my before?    Did I really want to leave my amagambo (words, in Kinyrwanda) to chase after my maneno (words, in Kiswahili)?  Did I really want to miss even one minute of my present to rummage through the forgotten hopes and dreams of the past 40 years?

Some might say, why not both?  In today’s world, the reality is that there is always a choice to be made, to stay in the here and the now, or to go to the there and the before.  Technology entices us into believing that we can be both places at once, but can we, really?  I know that I wasn’t thinking about my amagambo when I sent my maneno slipping through the heavens to greet someone half way around the world.  No, I was thinking about being there, not here.  There is, after all, something very seductive when someone chases you down after 40 years and says Hi, I haven’t forgotten you, talk to me!   But it is in moments like these, barely noticeable sometimes, that our resolve is tested.  I had a decision to make, do I go or do I stay?

Maneno are very powerful beings. They can connect us or divide us.   It is, at least for me, the possibility of crossing the divide between you and I that gives them their power.   In the smaller moments, when I am in the local isoko (market) and do not know what to say to get what I want, it is amagambo that separate me from the person with whom I am desperately trying to speak, nothing more, nothing less.  Because, when I do come up with the right ijambo (singular for amagambo), it is like a light has been turned on between us.  Suddenly, everything else in the situation fades into the background.  In that moment, we are connected.   Her eyes light up in recognition of what I am saying, just as mine light up from the sheer pleasure of finally having said something that is coherent enough for someone to understand and to welcome.

The amagambo-light effect also happens with my Kinyarwanda tutor, when I am able to come up with a well-formed sentence using a new structure, or a new word, all on my own.  She makes a little gasp, sits back, as that same beautiful smile of recognition  — and connection — spreads across her face.  Because of our relationship, there is also a little sigh of pride in what I have accomplished all by myself that comes with that great big gorgeous smile.  Sometimes she even reaches over to gently tuck my hair, which has now grown longer than I usually have it because I haven’t yet made it to a hairdresser who has any experience in cutting fine umuzungu (white person) hair, behind my ear, much in the way that a mother tidies her child’s hair before they leave the house together.

It is, for me, a most tender act of endearment and, perhaps part of the reason why I keep putting off my biannual trip to get myself shorn.  Because, after that, I won’t have any hair for her to tuck behind my ear.    In those moments, I am, of course, as delighted with my performance as I probably was when I first learned how to walk, or to talk, and my parents celebrated that achievement with their great big happy grins.  Everyone who has ever watched a child learn how to walk knows what the bright lights of “wow, I really did it” and “wow, you really did do it” looks like.

For me, the allure of amagambo is the possibility of connection that they represent.  In fact, it is only because of my passion for the moments where my amagambo are successful in their search for light in someone else’s eyes that I persist in trying to learn the language no matter what.   In the tiny precious moments where amagambo yanjye (my words) connect me to someone else mu isi ye (in their world) I experience pure delight.  It was the same when I learned Kiswahili, and it is the same now with  Kinyarwanda.   I am a funny one; 45 years pass and I haven’t changed a bit in terms of what motivates me to learn a new language. Without the right amagambo, there is only empty space between you and I.  But with the right amagambo?  Ahhh…..there it is – that brilliant shining light.   It is magic.  

I have decided:  I close the door on the seductress that is my past.   Today, I choose Rwanda.  Today I choose magic.

I am now back at home in my present life, here in my house on the little dusty road that has no name in the village of Gutaka in Nyamagana cell of the Ruhango sector of Ruhango district of Amajyepfo province of Rwanda.    Once again, I am returning to the job at hand, working hard to learn as many Kinyarwandan amagambo as I can.   For better or for worse, it is my addiction.  If truth be told, I am willing, in these days in my life, to do just about anything I can to improve my chances of seeing that light shining in the eyes of the people who surround me in this little country that has become my new home.

I now look back at all the little inturu (stories) that I prepared for my friend as they hang, like the soft tendrils of Spanish moss on an old oak tree, under the inyenyeri zikirere cy’ijoro mu Rwanda (the stars of the Rwandan night sky).  In one way, I am sad to leave them behind.   In another, I know that it is time for me to let whatever leaves of days gone by that still rest on the aging tree of my life be blown off its branches by the winds of time to burn brightly in the hot African sun as they take one last breath before falling to the earth to disappear into the dark red soil in the “land of 1000 hills”.


*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.