Language Blunders (or) Pride Goes Before a Fall

I have always been good with languages – whether my own native English (or should I say American?) or other languages. I enjoyed language school, where we learned Swahili. Yeah, I know we were not supposed to be enjoying ourselves and I did my fair share of complaining along with the rest, but in reality, I relished the challenges and especially, the feelings of victory when I communicated well what I intended to communicate!

Nevertheless, that did not make me immune to language blunders. In fact, language blunder stories can be among the most entertaining among the missionary’s repertoire of stories. Here are a few of my favourites:

I stood with my back to the man with whom I shared the kitchen. He was the gardener/house help of our good friends who had gone for a brief visit to the U.S., leaving us to house-sit their home, keep their work going, and keep their employee employed. Going from working for a family of 4 to a mere couple must have been boring for this poor man. It was difficult for me to scare up enough work to occupy his time. Nevertheless, on that day, I had him working on washing dishes while I cooked. In my own boredom from lack of anything much to do, I had taken to learning Swahili on my own. I had no idea how to form understandable sentences, but I was learning isolated words quickly.

I got the brilliant idea to practice on my poor victim. As I chopped food, with my back turned to him I chatted away (thankfully, he was fluent in English). I then asked him to please pass me the kitanda. This request was met with silence, so I turned to face him only to be greeted with a startled look on his face. Oh dear! What did I just ask him to give me? Soon, though, he broke out in a grin and said, “You mean kitamba”? while handing me the dish cloth. “Umm, yes, that’s what I meant. I did not really want you to go fetch me the bed”!  We had a good laugh over that one.

Another time while still in language school, we were visiting a church, where Chip was to preach. They always escorted us up front to sit on the stage, which this shy lady always found terribly embarrassing. I used to think that this was their way of honouring the guests, but I’m beginning to wonder if it was not also so the pastor could help the poor guests out of any blunders! This particular Sunday, I got to feeling very brave (or maybe it was pride at how well I was doing in language school). Either way, while sitting uncomfortably in front of all those curious pairs of eyes, I decided I was going to tell my testimony in Swahili (every time we visited a church, we had to give our testimony). So, I got up and told them in Swahili what I thought was that I had been saved when I was 13 years of age. Immediately all those curious pairs of eyes (especially the married women) became shocked and turned towards Chip, with a few audible tsk, tsks following the shift. Quickly, the pastor crept up behind me to do damage control and hissed in my ear the correct Swahili word. What I had actually told the people proudly was that I had been married at 13 years of age! The words for to be married and to be saved have only 1 syllable difference between them. Now I was wishing the ground would open up and swallow me whole. So much for showing off my linguistic prowess. Poor Chip had to preach after that!

The crowning touch was when we were ready to graduate from language school and the principal had the class over for a party at his home. We all assembled in his living room, where chairs had been arranged in a circle. I went over to a good friend who was a registered nurse and plopped myself into the empty seat next to her saying for all to hear, “I’m going to sit next to my favourite mbuzi!” Everyone laughed out loud, while she turned towards me with mock insult, saying “Well, thanks a lot!” OK, now what did I say?! It turned out I had boldly proclaimed that I was going to sit next to my favourite goat, not nurse! That one won me the Miss Complimentary award at the language school graduation ceremony.

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I have been trying to capture my thoughts, impressions, lessons learned and emotions surrounding my daughter’s marriage to a Kenyan man. This is quite the rollercoaster ride in cross cultural experiences…scary and thrilling at the same time!

It all began with the Ithege. Once we realized our daughter and her beau were serious and had definite plans to marry (after all, we saw her post on Facebook flaunting the engagement ring while we were in the U.S.), we knew we were about to embark on quite an adventure. After Amanda graduated from university, she trotted off to the U.S. for a year and a half to do a course in massage therapy. It was towards the end of this time we all realized that if they were to get married in the summer (before Chip & I were to leave for some months to the U.S.), we all needed to get started on the round of family meetings required for a proper Kenyan marriage. Thus the first meeting was planned to take place even before Amanda returned…the first meeting of the families.

The way I understand it, this first meeting, which they call Ithege (a type of tree, I was told), was actually a combination of the requisite first and second meetings. The way it was explained to me, in the traditional Ithege, the proposed groom’s family representatives come along with the groom and some of his friends, to meet the proposed bride’s family, see where she lives, and be reassured that indeed the girl is interested in marriage…that this is not a figment of the young man’s fancy. Once all this is established, traditionally, a tree would be planted at the entrance to the young lady’s family compound, basically to warn any other interested young men that this one’s taken! This is the equivalent of an official engagement. In this modern day, the Ithege tree now takes the form of money paid to the bride to be’s parents. The funny part to us was that there was considerable agitation that our daughter’s intended had ‘jumped the gun’ and given Amanda an engagement ring before having had this meeting of the families. They were particularly aghast when they discovered that the ring had been given and accepted even before the young man had even officially asked to court Amanda. What is done in that case is that a fine is paid by the young man – determined by his uncles – to the young lady’s family! All these discussions and activities were done with great seriousness and ritual.

There is one cardinal rule in the Ithege…the parents of the bride and of the groom must not speak! This was something which I found both comforting and difficult at the same time. On the one hand, this was all so new to me that I was lost much of the time and so was grateful I was not required to speak. I was sure I would say the wrong thing and offend everyone! However, it was also hard to keep my mouth shut when I felt something needed to be clarified! Chip and I had to keep mum and to trust our Kenyan ‘family’ to do all the necessary negotiations, ritual discussions and explanations.

So what did I learn in this first of several family events leading up to Amanda’s wedding? The first thing I learned was that in 36 years of living in Kenya and working especially among the Kikuyu community (Thuo’s tribe), I realized with great shock that I know nothing at all about their culture! This was a very humbling experience for me…and probably a much needed one! In addition to this was a profound sense of gratitude to the 2 couples whom we approached to help us navigate these tricky cultural waters (later joined by 2 more couples in the next meeting). We would certainly have sunk and drowned were it not for these wonderful friends who were willing to adopt us as true family, even to the point of doing all the uncle and auntie duties they would do for their own biological nieces and nephews. Finally, I was filled with a deep sense of satisfaction in these new discoveries. Even at nearly 60, there are lots of new things to discover and learn. This made me anticipate the upcoming meetings with relish, even as I felt nervousness over what challenges may face us ahead.