Sunday, May 24, 2015

Language: The Bumpy Road Through Culture

Having now finished language school, we have spent some time reflecting on our learning experience and the journey of our Swahili study. Like traveling the roads of Kenya, the ride has at times been bumpy and nauseating, sometimes with tough terrain we struggled through, but overall fun. And, at the end of the trip, there is a sense of relief and accomplishment of a voyage completed. And while we expected to learn Swahili language, perhaps the more surprising lessons were the cultural ones learned through our language study.
Andrea and Madison on the road


"Pole sana because the pole cows
are walking polepole in the middle of the road"
Pole (POH-lay): During the briefest visit to Kenya, the word pole is quickly learned (even if it wasn’t featured in the Lion King). A versatile word, it can be used in response to when someone bumps his knee or when his grandfather has died, both with great meaning to express solidarity. It demonstrates empathy and understanding, often combined with sana to say, “very sorry.” It also can be used as an apology, asking forgiveness or a simple “excuse me.” As an adjective and adverb, it can describe tranquility and gentleness. Usually when combined as polepole, it is to go unhurriedly, be careful, or slow down. Upole, the essence of being pole, is a revered state of meekness, kindness, and peacefulness, more often observed than spoken of. Pole is derived from the root word for patience. Very appropriate for a flexible word that seems to have more significance than either “sorry,” “slow down,” or condolences.


The Parker family at Lake Naivasha
Adoption: There is not a verb in Swahili "to adopt." When explaining how I adopted Madison, I learned that the verb typically used for adoption is “to buy.” It may come from the idea that adoption outside of family and blood ties is very foreign. In fact, many Kenyans see outsiders wanting to adopt as foreigners coming to buy children (this is slowly changing). After advice from our language teachers, I’ve decided to use the verb “to choose” which seems even more appropriate than adoption. I chose Madison to be my daughter.


“The cup broke itself”: The routine phrase for how something has been damaged is that the item has damaged itself. Only after further prodding would a child reveal that the cup broke because he was throwing it across the room at his sister. To the western mind, the child seemingly shirks his responsibility. Conversely, his sister, by using the same language, protects her brother from the shame that would befall him. This passive language, a familiar reaction of children, permeates Swahili. There does not seem to be the same need to quickly assign blame or even take responsibility. There are both beneficial and detrimental effects in expressing oneself in this way, but you may see the problems it could create for me, someone who proudly takes the blame for his patients’ outcomes regardless of direct involvement. I’m sure I will make my share of mistakes, but maybe learning language will let me understand my mistakes a little better.

The old "stick bridge" down the hill from Tenwek.
Since replaced, but undoubtedly strong
And then there are the countless sayings: As a relatively indirect culture (excluding requests for money or sweets), there are a number of stories and proverbs to convey lessons about the importance of maintaining relationships. Some of our favorites include: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” and “A bundle of sticks is impossible to break.” Just as I think it would be rude to remind someone how to do their job, it seems rude in Kenya to tell another something directly that may cause him to lose face or embarrass him. With parables, stories, and intermediaries, the Kenyan passively yet carefully gets his point across even if as a Westerner I am too dense to get it.

These are just a few of our superficial observations. We look forward to learning more of the language and culture in the upcoming years. Perhaps the best part of our time learning Swahili has been the window it provides into observing a different culture. What a fun road we are on.