Language Lessons

Long time no write! I’ve been traveling, including two weeks in my beloved Kenya with my husband, kids, and one of my best friends. It was the latter’s first time, and I loved taking him to my favorite places and watching Kenya work its magic on him. I dare anyone to go to Kenya and not leave enchanted. If you aren’t, well, you may be a sociopath. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.

If you can look at this photo and have no desire to go to Kenya, you may be a sociopath, according to the DSM-V. OK, not really, but it’s not a good sign for you.

For the second time, we were driven around the country by Moses, who I think must be the best safari guide in Kenya and who I now consider a dear friend. Moses is aptly named, because I do believe he could traverse the Red Sea in his Land Cruiser. With Moses, it’s No road, No problem. He can get out of any mud hole, sand pit, ditch, crevasse, or generally hairy driving situation you may have. In one game park, he rescued two other vehicles who had gotten stuck in deep sand. Of course, they got stuck by following him into the sand without having his driving skills, but that is not his responsibility. The passengers of one of the vehicles were so grateful they gave Moses $500.

The scene as Moses, who is probably under the car, digs a vehicle in distress out of the sand. And once again, take note of the beauty of Kenya. Even at a time of mishap, you are guaranteed a nice view.

He is also quite an animal behavioral expert after decades of watching them. On our last trip before this one, he got us in prime position to watch five cheetahs bring down a couple of wildebeests after spotting them scoping out the herd up on a hill. This time, we followed a lioness he was sure had her heart set on a zebra brunch. We had to follow her for two hours, but sure enough, she made her move. Unfortunately for her, the zebra escaped. We were just devastated for her. The zebra had a different take on things, proving once again that there are two sides to every story.

Tabitha, as we named her after two hours of following her on her ultimately failed hunting trip, recovering from her ordeal.

I loved riding with Moses in the front seat and fulfilling his music requests (must be 80’s pop, 70s funk, or Top 40 hits from 2014. I have yet to get to the bottom of the latter preference). And practicing my Swahili. His is a typical Kenyan mash-up of English, Swahili, Kikuyu (in his case; Kenyans of other tribes will throw in their own mother tongue), and “sheng” or slang. Mine is the Queen’s Swahili, learned largely in a classroom and from books, broadcasts, and tutors, with rare usage in less formal environments. I’ve been told I sound like a broadcaster or a Tanzanian, which are kind of the same thing, as the latter are kind of the official the guardians of proper Swahili, thanks to their Founding Father’s insistence on its usage.

Kenyans are usually blown away by my Swahili, that is until they say something to me and I either stare at them as if I am fighting off an aneurism or reply with an enthusiastic “Yes, it’s true!” to a question about what I would like to eat. Even then, they are thrilled to hear me try and extremely, ridiculously generous in their assessments of my skills. On the trail with Moses, he introduced me to all his fellow safari drivers, to whom he had apparently foretold about the Mzungu (white person) who speaks Swahili. My skills have actually improved (through a lot of hard work) since the last time I was there, and this time, I was able to converse more easily and playfully insert myself into Moses’s conversations. I made a lot of new friends on this trip.

The kinds of friends I didn’t make growing up there. I actually didn’t learn Swahili as a child at all, living in the protective bubble of missionary life. I in fact didn’t learn much about Kenya at all beyond what was right in front of me, certainly not its history or the deeper elements of its culture or government or politics or traditions. I didn’t see a need. Most people, even ordinary, rural people, spoke some English. And I didn’t have any ordinary Kenyan friends anyway–I did attend a Kenyan primary school for a couple of years, but it was in English, and to be honest, I gravitated toward the other, few white kids in the school. At my boarding school in Kenya, which had some Kenyan students but the majority American culture dominated, the language course choices were Swahili and French. I took French, thinking it would be more broadly useful.

But language and relationship are intertwined, and my lack of relationships with many Kenyans and my lack of Swahili or other Kenyan language skills reinforced each other, creating a barrier. It also marked me as “not a real Kenyan” once I left for adult life in America and my “Kenyan” identity became much more precious to me. When I would proudly tell people where I grew up, one of the first questions they would ask me was, Do you speak the language? No, I would say, adding an excuse about it not being necessary. But I increasingly felt ashamed, an imposter. It was a tangible indicator of the lameness and falseness of my identity. Or worse, its simplicity as ordinarily American.

In my discussion with other MKs, I’m finding I’m not not alone. Many of the girls in particular mention deep regret over not learning the local language. Gender is instructive here–we girls usually had fewer opportunities to make local friends and thereby acquire language skills through play. There were concerns for our security and safety, thus leaving us more often inside our homes and missionary compounds. But then there were fewer local girls out and about as well. They were typically doing chores at their homes, while boys might be free to play or involved in chores that allowed them more mobility, like herding livestock.

As an adult in DC and through professional connections, I had the opportunity over a decade ago to begin Swahili lessons. I jumped at the chance. Long story short, I am now pretty fluent, at least in speaking. As I have mentioned, I’m not that great at listening in any language, as I far prefer to hear myself talk, and I continue to work on that both in English and Swahili. I use Swahili sometimes in my professional life, but I expend far more effort on it that is warranted by that. Mostly, I do it for the love. For the joy. For the connection to a time and a place and a part of myself I just can’t let go.

And to a people that I too easily ignored and dismissed as a child. It’s such an exquisite joy when I see a Kenyan or Tanzanian and get to break into Swahili. Surprise and recognition come across their face as they realize I’m not just another White person, I’m not an outsider or interloper or tourist or casual humanitarian here to “help.” I’m someone who has taken the time and effort to learn their language. I’m someone who cares enough to do so. I’m someone who wants to know them and who respects them and can see them just a little bit more than I could before. I’m communicating much more to them, and to myself about them, than the words for which I’m grasping. I hope they hear me speaking their language.

Of course, that is the challenge and the joy in any human relationship, even when we share the same tongue. Words and turns of phrases, as well as the unspoken languages of presence and touch and service can show empathy, respect, concern, compassion, encouragement, love. Or language can be used to label, divide, police, and hurt, even by well intentioned people. The insistence that we all use certain language and terminology within the evangelical faith in which I grew up I often found alienating, even as someone who espoused the same basic beliefs. It was one of the ways you were judged as a Christian. Did you say you were “lucky”? Hmmm, a real Christian would say “blessed.” Was Jesus your “personal Lord and Savior” who had “come into your heart” and were you “born again”? If you couldn’t say that, using those exact words, you weren’t in the club, and in fact you may very soon be in hell. Then there’s the Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holiday war…Name and shame, name and shame. Or Christian-splain, a term I claim to have recently coined (TM).

Then there’s the whole realm of cursing, and I’m not here to condone carpet-F-bombing everyone. But I’m also not going to let another person’s carpet-F-bombing prevent me from seeing their beautiful heart and hearing their thoughts. I’m not going to correct a mourning friend who feels the need to shout her anger at the outrageous loss of life using every word in the book. If that is what she needs to do, then, yes, F everything to hell. Being present with her in that moment is far more sacred than words.

Language is the raw material with which we build relationship. Do our choices reflect a desire to love or a desire to judge? To include or exclude? Do they show respect, curiosity, and humility or arrogance, self-assuredness, and egocentrism? And are we willing to work and to risk and to be uncomfortable in order that we might speak someone else’s language?

Anytime I’ve stretched myself, whether it be in literally learning a new language or adapting mine, I’ve never felt regret.

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