Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Language is Culture...Part II: Homestays

I recently completed 1.5 months of homestays with Kenyan families to help with enculturating & language learning. The father of both families are co-workers of mine at family lives in Narok (the same town I live in) & the other lives in a more rural town out in the 'bush' a 1.5-2 hour drive south of Narok. Both of these experiences gave me a glimpse into the lives of Kenyans here, at least for families that are on the more 'well-off' side. I spent quite a bit of time during both homestays studying Swahili, too, with their daughters that were home from school. We used a lot of the techniques that I learned about in my training in Colorado last summer...I had fun & I hope they did, too:) The same rang true with language leraning with a language helper & homestays as with language school....Language is Culture! Here's some of the things I remembered to write down:

- My name has changed: it's really difficult for Kenyans to pronounce my always comes out as "Kate", "Katie" to them sounds too much like kati (Swahili for 'time') & kiti (Swahili for chair/couch), so they get pretty confused sometimes when I'm introduced

- Toilet talk: all cultures are different as far as what is appropriate to say. Here, you do not say, "I'm going to the choo" (choo = toilet), you say, "I'm going to help myself". I had one Kenyan friend tell me I was going to the 'relief office' :)

- Reality: I asked the girls to help me write sentences using words of objects that I'm trying to learn...a common theme I saw was about things being 'broken', 'stolen', 'dirty', or 'clean'...frequnt realities of life here & what so many women's lives revolve around. I wanted to find the word for ceiling , but when they wrote a sentence for me it translated, "They hid money in the roof."...I was confused. The girls said, "Aren't roof & celing the same thing? Most people don't have a ceiling. And they do hide their money in the grass roofs." The Swahili words for bake & steam were also unknown to them...they don't cook those ways...they don't have an oven. Another sentence did bring some humor...I had found the phrase for 'kitchen sink' (beseni la kuoshea vyomba vya bafu...a fete considering most families in rural areas don't have running water & therefore use basins instead), but my friend wasn't familiar with this combination of words & only registered 'basin' --> "I lost the kitchen sink" :)

- Different meanings: the same word means different things not only across languages, but also accross locations & cultures. I was talking about my bibi one day...grandmother in Tanzanian Swahili, but wife in Kenyan Swahili...opps! So, now if I go back to Tanzania & talk about my nyanya (grandmother in Kenya), they're going to think I'm talking about my tomato :) Uwanja wa ndege ('field of airplanes') = airport (which, when taken apart, seems to be a 'port for the air') Dawa la meno ('teeth medicine') = toothpaste ('paste for teeth') P.S. 'Narok' (the town I live in) apparently means 'hell' in Thai!!! Hell's Gate National Park is nearby :)

- Word construction: as I learn the literal means of words or phrases, it's easy to see that language develops as the culture develops, & words are created in the context of what is already known. For example, in Swahili, disappointed = kosa tumaini (literally 'to lack hope'). You can see this in English, too....breakfast = 'to break the fast'. It's kind of beautiful to see a language in this way...

- The English bubble: things don't always (actually, usually don't) translate literally into English...each language is it's own, why would it fit into the English bubble?...but that can be hard to remember & thus causes frustration sometimes. The frustration can go both ways, would one go about describing why we call 'tank tops' tank tops????

- Culinary limits: different peoples stomachs tolerate different things, let alone different cultures with the foods we're used to! Milk (maziwa), for example, in the Maasai culture is a staple of their diet. You can find maziwa lala ('sleeping milk') in the supermarkets, aka "yogurt" as described to me. I've also heard of the famous Maasai 'sour milk', with the steps of kuharibkia ('to spoil' particles yet, but it smells) to kuganda ('to freeze'...soured with particles to which lots of sugar is added). I don't know if my stomach would 'sleep' through the night with that...

Some challenges:
- Have I turned into an 'interrupter'??? How do you know when it's approritate to say something when you don't understand what they're talking about? And by the time you do translate in your head enough to know what they were talking about, are you now saying a totally random thing off topic?! :)

- The 'right way' vs the 'ministry way'...this is a big challenge for me because I like to do things the 'right way'. I began my Swahili study in Tanzania where Swahili is 'purer' (Swahili was born in Zanzibar, grew-up in Tanzania, & died in Kenya), but then did homestays in rural Kenyan where proper Swahili is taught in school, but is definitely not spoken the same way ("Why would anyone choose to speak less 'intelligently' than they're taught?! Oh, yeah...we do this in the States all the time!"). Where do I put my efforts...learning Swahili by the books or by learning how the people I'll be working with speak it (even when I know it's 'wrong' & goes against my perfectionist grain)??? Do I want to 'fit in' or be the equivalent of a British person speaking in the South in the States???

- "If I don't know how to say it in Swahili, I just shouldn't say anything"...right? Probably wrong. Warning: This leads to a decrease in interactions with the people around you, & therefore decreased relationships. That can get pretty lonely...

- Dictionary vs person...who to trust? Well, it turns out both are 'right' at different times depending on how the language is used in the area you're in. This definitely led to some frustrations when I thought I'd learned a word I looked up only to find out that's not how it's used here...kusali means 'to pray' in Swahili, but not in Narok it's how Muslims pray! Note to self: say omba when I want to pray:) But, the dictionary is still my language helpers & I reference it all the time!

- 'Good' days & 'bad' days...when I seemed to be having a 'good' day with language, I would have a 'bad' day with culture shock. When I'd have a 'good' day with culture, I'd have a 'bad' day with language. The days that both aspects were 'good' seemed rare, but....really good :)

Some new experiences during my homestay time:

- listening to the radio while hanging out & relaxing in the afternoons...I've gotten used to only listening to the radio in the car on occassion

- watching a chicken be slaughtered, cooked, & then placed onto my plate for dinner...surprisingly I had no aversion to eating the tastey dinner

- diarrhea on an outdoor squaty-potty outhouse...perhaps too much information for some people, but hey, it's inevitable when living overseas :)

- reading by flashlight at night after the solar power ran out...this usually lead to an earlier bed time than I'm used to

- brushing my teeth outside underneath the breathtaking stars at night

- old time country & gospel music are still alive & well in Kenya :)

- watching a friend eat dirt that she picked up while walking by the shamba (farm), which she said is a really common snack for's even available for sale in the supermarket! She was recently pregnant, probably had malaria at some point, & now is anemic (odd cravings that come along with anemia like this is called pica in the States, for which people take iron tablets for months, but it's not readily availbe here, & if they do take it & don't see quick results after a week they stop)

- I went to visit a friend & was served: chai x2 (of course!), hard boiled eggs, gum, & 'medicinal' tea :)

- meeting iliterate adults & children that have never been to school nor never will...I didn't realize how prevelent this still is here, despite there being laws about kids going to school (there's just not the personnel out in rural areas to enforce this, & some families still don't see the need for an education)

- an 8 hour church service, part of which was a celebration of a CD the choir had recorded & is now was long, but also filled with beautiful dancing & praising God

- I felt like I was on the way to becoming part of the family, not just a guest, when the mother of the family told me "Karibu dada" (welcome sister) & held my hand as we walked through the market (a common things for friends to do in this culture...for men & women)

**If you'd like to see more pictures from my homestay experiences, click here**