Newsletter; January, 2004

Greetings and a Happy New Year

The end of the year was a time for reflection, and I gave some thought to what we have learned since arriving in Africa last September. One of the subtle, but important, changes has been in language. I am a linguist by training and am always fascinated by language conventions and evolution.

English in Africa is changing and evolving and taking on a whole flavor of its own which has nothing to do with accent and intonation. Taken with social conventions, it presents a unique and vibrant system of interaction.

Let me give you some examples. At the end of a sentence Canadians often say "eh?" and Americans might say something like "right?" or "doncha know?" to check for understanding. Often we'll invert a verb. "We always expect rain at this time of year, don't we?"

Kenyans say "isn't it?" As in: "We always expect rain at this time of year, isn't it?" "I've told you many times about my brother, isn't it?"

I even recently stopped myself from tagging on "isn't it?" to the end of a sentence.

I have learned never to ask a negative question. It's too confusing.

Question: "Don't you have any money?" Answer: "Yes." (Meaning: "Yes, you are

right, I don't have any money."

Other interesting words have appeared in the vocabulary. To be laid off from a job is to be 'retrenched' and when seeking employment you can 'tarmack' all day.

Kenyan men walk in the street hand in hand, but even such low key displays of affection are not approved between men and women. A man will refer to another man as 'my friend' but not to a woman. The closest we can get is 'my colleague' if a man and a woman work together.

Other cultural norms: Only small boys wear shorts, so visiting tourists in short pants appear childish. The crotch area and upper legs should always be shrouded. This has led to some problems with the growing popularity of jeans amongst younger people. Over zealous males have been known to rip the pants from women in public. Fortunately if apprehended, they are charged with assault.

One shakes hands with everyone one meets. If you enter an office area, you give your hand to all the others waiting their turn. Greetings are important and not to be hurried over, even to bank tellers and waiters. When shaking hands a person will often place his left hand on his extended right arm. The height of the left hand will denote the amount of respect accorded to the other person. On the wrist means: we are almost equals. Above the elbow signifies a great deal of respect.

Strangely, farewells are not nearly as formal and elaborate as greetings. Often people will finish the chat and with a casual: "Nice time" just walk away.

I have not yet grown accustomed to being called 'mzungu' (white person) as a form of address. It bothers me, and is something I still need to get used to. No offence is meant, but it is so much against our own social conventions to call someone by their racial origin, that I'm not sure it will ever flow over me unnoticed.