Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lost in Translation

Even though here in Kenya I’m mostly surrounded by people who speak English, I’m the only American on staff at KAK right now, so I still often find myself totally confused by what people are saying (and they’re often totally confused by me too). Even Ruth, my British roommate, and I sometimes have moments of total non-communication when we’re talking to each other.
So, I’m working on learning 3 new languages right now – Kiswahili, British English and Kenyan English – all very different from what I’ve grown up speaking, but all equally valid ways of communicating. Languages are always evolving, so who am I to say that the American English is “better” than Kenyan English? I’ve gotten quite a lot of flak (mostly good-naturedly) from some of our British short-term team members about the way I speak and spell (and I’ve usually given it right back to them with comments like “well, we’ve just streamlined your language for you. You’re welcome.”), and I’ve realized that as long as we understand one another, who cares whether the way we’re communicating is the “right way” or not?  
It’s been fun learning these new ways of communicating, but I still have a long way to go. There are still MANY moments throughout my day where I find myself saying “Can you explain what that means?”, “say that again?” or simply “What?” Not being able to understand or communicate well has been a challenge for me at times, but God is teaching me a lot about humility, patience and trust through it all – I’m also much more inclined to laugh at myself these days than maybe I used to be. I have made some pretty funny mistakes, so instead of getting embarrassed, I laugh at myself. And my Kenyan friends and co-workers laugh with me too. And we laugh together when they make funny communication mistakes. And we all grow closer together and understand one another better through the laughter.
 As I’ve been working on improving my language skills, I’ve created a little glossary for myself to help me keep everything straight – some are phrases that I’d never heard before but are just how people say things here, and some are Kenyan pronunciations that were confusing to me at first or Kenyan re-workings of classic English phrases/colloquialisms.  

Here are a few of my favorites:                                        

Kenyan English
My American Translation
Paper Bag
Plastic Grocery Bag
Iron Box
Biskwit and Moskweetoh
Biscuit and Mosquito
Brother (said with a specific, knowing tone)
From the Blues
Out of the blue
It’ll cost you a leg and an arm
An arm and a leg
Isn’t it?
Do you agree with me?
I’m coming
I’m leaving but I’ll be right back
Said as a greeting when shaking hands (clever way to preemptively answer the question and skip over the “how are yous”)
Up and Down
Kenyan directional words meaning right or left depending on the grade of the road (if the road is flat, I’m usually completely lost)

Funny conversation Ruth had a while back:
“So Ruth, are you going to the vaganza?"
“What’s a vaganza?"
“I don’t know. I was hoping you could tell me."
"I've never heard of a vaganza"
"Well anyway, I guess this isn't the first vaganza because they said this is the extra one”
“Oh I see - An extravaganza!”

I'm getting there - slowly and with a lot of laughter, I'm getting there.


  1. Hi Meredith!

    I saw this on Facebook and had to comment because of one of the words in your glossary. In French, if you say, "j'arrive," that normally means, "I'm coming," or, "I'll be right there," but if you say it as you walk away from someone it means, "I'm leaving but I'll be right back." I thought this was really funny. I guess this exact concept is in Kenya as well?

    I read some of your other posts, and you have a lot of good stuff to say. I can relate to some of your thoughts about living in another culture.

    Keep up the good work!