Do we really understand each other?
Kiswahili may be Tanzania’s official language, said Elsie Eyakuze, but that doesn’t mean we have all mastered it. It is a language “full of subtleties and triple entendres, threats and assurances, disses and praise.” Depending on the tone and context, a word like usijali, for example, can mean “you made a mistake but it’s cool, no beef” or “you made a mistake for which you will pay in misery.” With 120 ethnic groups in Tanzania, there are many regional variations of the language, some all but unintelligible to other Kiswahili speakers. Head inland, for example, and the language—which originated on the coast—“loses its lilting sandy tones and becomes harder, more glottal.” Not all of us embrace Kiswahili. One Gogo woman from central Tanzania spat on the floor when I tried to interview her in Kiswahili, saying she wouldn’t speak “the colonial language.” She shocked me, but she had a point. It was the first wave of colonizers from Germany who, with “Teutonic efficiency,” encouraged the spread of Kiswahili to facilitate trade. Only later did the British arrive and give us our other common tongue, English. Kiswahili keeps evolving—an online version has emerged with shorthand such as ck for day or mpnz for love. Kiswahili 3.0 is the “next frontier.”