A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the Third World
Maybe it’s his first time around.
He doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound, the sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says Amen,
“You Can Call Me Al” - Paul Simon
Muraho was the first word I learned in Kinyarwanda. On our second day in country, our large group of 25 trainees was split into six groups, and I sat alongside three of my other colleagues and watched Samuel and Etienne, our two teachers otherwise known as Language and Cultural Facilitators, act out a short dialogue.
They stood about eight feet apart, facing away from each other, then turned around and began to walk slowly with their heads down, as if they were walking along a street. Then the choreography called for them to pick their heads up and make eye contact, and upon doing so, Etienne beamed with a wide grin and exclaimed “Muraho!” to his friend Sam. On cue, after hearing this, Sam also grinned and returned the word. “Muraho!” he replied.
The dialogue then came to a swift end. Upon ending, each of our new language teachers looked at our group inquisitively. “Iki ni iki?”. They continued to stare at us, owning the silence, waiting for someone to produce a response.
In the silence we squirmed and, understanding that our teachers were not going to bail us out with English, we looked to each other for help.
“Wait. What are they asking?” someone asked. “What is an eechie neechie? Are they asking us what an ichy nichy is? I don’t know what that is.” The group agreed, none of us had any idea what an ichie nichie was. We all nodded together, feeling that we had exculpated ourselves of our task by coming to collective group indecision.
Our teachers, still smiling, said nothing but went back and repeated the little sketch, beat for beat. After saying Muraho! to each other again, they repeated their question: “Iki ni iki?”. The light bulb then managed to click in someone’s mind. “Oh! They are just asking us what Muraho means. It means hello!”. We all nodded with recognition as we got our first taste of what language classes in Rwanda were going to be like. “Yego!”, they said laughing.
As they continued, some of the smaller and more basic words were written down, with their English definitions so we could reference them consistently. Yego means yes. Oya means no. Iki means what. Murabyumva means, do you understand? Iki ni iki means, what it it/this? Our teachers never used English during this first session, instead addressing our translational needs by writing them down and posting them on the several large paper easels that flanked them on either side of their teaching stage.
On this first day, our foursome buzzed with excitement. The teachers, staying true to form, continued to act out small dialogues in lieu of telling us the words by didactic translation. They waved to each other and walked away, saying to each other “Mwirirgwe!”. “That means goodbye!”, someone blurted. They would award our correct guesses with a resounding and enthusiastic “Yego!” and punish a wrong guess with a soft and disappointing “Oya…”.
“Amakuru?” means, how are you? We figured out slowly. “Nimeza” means, I’m good. “Wowe?” means, and yourself?
Our teachers had successfully hijacked the puzzle solving parts of our brains. The evolutionary mechanism that had once provided a hit of dopamine when our caveman ancestors recognized a lion in the bush hundreds of thousands of years ago, had been co-opted by two strange men teaching us the most basic of Kinyarwandan greetings. We loved it.
(PHOTO: From left to right, Peace Corps Rwanda trainees Alex and Kenny, and Olive - Language & Cross-Culture Facilitator.)
One. Month. Later.
I have Double Language today. Double Language. Four straight hours.
On a Tuesday morning in our fourth week of training, I thought this to myself as I walk to language class. The thought rattles around my mind with every step down the road. DoubleLanguage DoubleLanguage DoubleLanguage.
Walking down the street to my language teacher Etienne’s class, I could feel the meager breakfast I had that morning rattling around in the ever present void of my stomach that my Rwandan diet had slowly created. When I’m not miserable with a dull hunger, I laugh to myself and imagine the small bit of food I’ve eaten like an 80’s Pong game, or like an old Windows Screen Saver - traveling through the chasm, slowly bouncing bouncing bouncing off the walls of my stomach while I stroll down the road. Back in the U.S there are usually eggs in there, there’s usually bacon or more often than not there isn’t even breakfast food but just a large sandwich or burrito loaded with all the things I like that keep me powered on through the morning and early afternoon.
My morning taking language on these meager meals has launched me into a crash course on nutrition. Through trial and error I have a rough estimation for how much breakfast food corresponds to how much functional brain power. If I just get fruit - passion fruit and a mini banana - my brain will function for roughly an hour before total shutdown. If you give me fruit and a chapati or two, which is my normal breakfast, I’ll make it a little over 2 hours - a typical language session. If you give me a single hard boiled egg, the infusion of protein hits my stomach like Nitrous Oxide to a street racing Honda Civic and I fly through the finish line, flames blasting out of the exhaust. Any more than one egg and it’s just icing on the cake. But I rarely get eggs. Given this current breakfast which I would say is about average, I’ll make it slightly over 50% of this double language session. And out here in Africa, on little food and even less sleep, when my brain shuts down it’s ugly. I have crashes that render me a 6’5” useless blob of nothingness. I can hardly stay awake, let alone learn a new language.
But I’m here. Just as The Schedule calls for: 8:00am on the dot. And while I’m still lost in my own mind, considering for the countless time the incomprehensible insanity that Rwandans don’t care in the slightest about Breakfast which I’ve learned since a kid is the most important meal of the day, I am asked my first question of language class.
“Jones, kuva mu gitondo kugereza ijoro, ukora iki?”
I snap to attention to listen to Etienne ask the question, and I can hear the shifting gears in my mind grinding as it switches to Kinyarwanda mode, like going from 1st gear to 6th gear in a rickety manual transmission. None of it registers, so I go to my tried and true first lifeline. “Subiramo?”, I ask feebly, squinting through drooping eyes and wincing face. My teacher, taking early pity on me, obliges my request and repeats my question but at a substantially slower pace.
“Jones, kuva mu gitondo kugereza ijoro, ukora iki?”
I squint hard at the wall as I retreat back into the recesses of my sputtering mind. My brain communicates to my mouth to commence it’s highly intelligent thinking sound to let the class know I am deep in thought.
Ok here we go Alex, come on now you can do this. Jones I know my first name, even though he says it funny I at least know he’s talking to me. Ok what’s a koovamoo? And what’s a geetondo? That sounds familiar…I know that sounds familiar. But I can’t remember right now. Can I? No it’s not there. Keep moving forward. Kugereza…no that’s not there either. Ok ijoro, that means night, I say that one all the time with my host family. Ukoreechie… another reechie word!
My gaze has shifted from the block of cement in the wall to my shoes. Eeeehhhhhhhhh…….
Well that must be iki, and I know iki means what, so he’s definitely asking me a question. Ukoreechie: I know the ooo sound is the “you” pronoun, and gukora means to work or to do, so he must be asking me what I work on, or maybe what I do? At night what do I do? That can’t be it can it? The questions are usually bigger than that. What kind of question is that? But then what's the whole first part of the question?
My face is scrunched tight with my pointer finger and thumb pinching the bridge between my nose. Hmmmmmmm…….
Oh! Kuva! Kugereza! I wrote that down somewhere, I know I wrote that down, I know I wrote that down. I wrote it in the middle of my notebook a few days ago, or was it a few weeks ago? There are ellipses in the middle so it’s a phrase that always sticks together. Where is that picture in my mind? To…from? Then… there? For…them? From…til? Yeah there’s something there. From…til. Kuva…kugereza. That’s the one. The bells are ringing. Trust your gut. From mu gitondo til night, what do I do? Must be morning til night. There’s the big question, he wants me to talk about my day. Time to spit it out.
“Oh are you saying, from morning until night, what do I do?”, I finally blurt out.
He smiles the same smile he gave a month ago. “Yego!” he exclaims, looking genuinely pleased. The puzzle is solved and the dopamine hits, just as it did a month ago. “Yegoooo” I respond, visibly pleased with myself.
“Ndananiwe”, I answer, with a exhausted smirk. I am tired. From morning til night, I’m tired. The joke gets a laugh out of my teacher, and the goodwill gets me off the hook for what should be a real answer in Kinyarwanda. One question down, four hours to go. Class has just begun.
Unsurprisingly, learning Kinyarwanda is wildly different from anything I’ve ever tried to learn in my life. Considering I’ve never attempted to learn anything other than a romance language, just listening to it spoken at a normal speed can make my head spin at times, and I’m into week six of an intensive learning course. Like most of the massive differences I have experienced since being out here, not knowing the language was in its own way totally fascinating for the first two weeks, and simply listening to people speak it was its own form of rapt entertainment.
My host mom would breathlessly speak at what seemed like an unfathomable warp speed while I sat and listened to every word, left many galaxies behind, trying to parse out a semi-familiar phrase she had said approximately 9,646 words ago. Host family learning, along with learning in class every morning presented its own fun little diversion from the normal course of our day learning Peace Corps policies and safety measures.
But as time wore on, it became clear that learning a language takes a significant amount of mental energy, commitment, and time; and these three things are required every single day. After a long language session, in which I did nothing but sit down and occasionally stand for a few minutes to complete a learning activity, I was surprised to find myself more exhausted than if I went out to run a strenuous five miles. My friends would have the same expression of defeated delirium, mental stress leaking down into our physical forms, as they all limped their way back to our Training Center. As the nights wore on listening to my Host Mom speak her native language, my thoughts increasingly shifted from “Wow this is wild!” to “Christ, what could she possibly be saying, she has said 5 billion words. Tell me what you’re saying!” Knowing you have absolutely no idea what people are saying all day can add its own little poke of stress as your days march on.
But in the end Kinyarwanda it is a truly fascinating language, and to be learning something this new, under threat of necessity for not only professional but personal success, is directly in line with the reasons why I came out here to begin with. Though I’m not always successful in reminding myself of this when I am in the throes of a DoubleLanguage on an empty stomach, I do my best to try. And when I do I always manage to feel better.
(PHOTO: Peace Corps Rwanda Language & Cross-Culture Facilitator Olive.
Notes and Thoughts on the Local Language
When I hear Kinyarwanda, I have a hard time understanding it. My language progress checks with my teachers also reflect this fact. Besides the fact that it is largely my fault for perhaps not putting in as much personal study time as I should be, I attribute much of this difficulty to the Kinyarwandan convention of blending words together. While in American English we may blend two words as a matter of slang, Rwandans do it is a lingual rule - as a matter of course. For example, instead of asking my friend, “What is up?” I would probably just say, “Wassup”. But it is commonly understood that though this is the common way of speaking, saying it in this manner is a slang term. You wouldn’t teach the phrase “Wassup" to anyone trying to learn conventional English, unless you were letting them in on a little but of fun colloquialism. In Kinyarwanda, on the other hand, if you do not blend words together, it is an improper method of speech and people will know (among a million other things) that you are not a native Rwandan. In every instance where a word ends in a vowel, and is followed by a word that starts with a vowel, you drop one of the two letters, along with its entire syllable and blend the two words into one word. For example, the word “Kuboneza Urubyaro” means Family Planning (a very useful word to know for a health clinic volunteer like myself). You, English speaker, would read that phrase as two separate verbal entities: Kuboneza *pause* Urubyaro. Rwandans, however, drop the U of the second word, making it a single entity; a fully blended sounding “KuboneZurubyaro”. It quite literally sounds like one word because you have deliberately done so as a rule of speech. This drives me insane. To a learner of the language, particularly one who likes to understand each and everything before moving forward, I get hung up on this constantly. What’s a kubo? Or is it a neza? Or is it a zurubyaro? Then what is a kubone? So in every instance in class, I have to bring my full mental capacity to bear every time the teacher speaks, setting me up for mental crashes the likes of which the world has never seen.
Speaking the language is also difficult, although I would argue it is not quite as difficult as listening. This is in large part because as a native English speaker the sentence structures, particularly of questions, are almost entirely backwards. In Kinyarwanda, question words almost always go at the end of sentences. For instance, going back to the brain racking question my teacher asked me above: Saying to someone “Ukora iki”, means, what do you do?; but literally translates to “You do what?”. It is like that for just about everything. You are here why? This is what? The market is where? The kids are crying why? The kids cry all the time why?? In addition to putting question words at the end, adjectives go after nouns; this is similar to Spanish, which many of us are familiar with. But when you put these two elements together, it forces your brain into a cryptic enigma solving mode anytime you have to say a sentence with any semblance of detail. When I think to myself a moderately detailed sentence like, “What do your American friends like to do?”, my head spins. The question word goes to the end, there are plural words, there are possessive words, there is one adjective. It all goes completely out of what we would consider “order”: Inshuti wawe muri Amerika bakunda gukora iki? That translates literally to: Friends yours in America they like to do what? It’s a difficult puzzle to solve each and every time. Don't forget to blend Gukora and Iki - Goo-ko-reechie?
The words for things, and the lack thereof in certain instances, perfectly captures stark differences between American and Rwandan culture. The most glaring in my mind is the fact that in Rwandan there is no word for “Please”. You can just tell people to do things, in declarative sentences, and it’s not considered rude in any way. And oh, how us Trainees agonized over this in our first weeks. Gripped with anxiety over getting along with our Host Families, we relentless picked the brains of our language teachers over what was appropriate and what wasn’t. The thought of commanding some one to simply “Stop” or “Give me that” or “Come here”, or “I am hungry and I want dinner”, without the prerequisite comedy of manners, was impossible to understand. For instance, if you were on a public bus covering a large distance, and the volume was too loud to the point of bothering you, the American way would be to tolerate the loud volume up until the point where it was completely intolerable and then approach the driver with a voice that reflects your deepest regrets and most humble of values. You would say “Excuse me sir, I’m sorry to impose, but it appears as though you have left the volume at a level that has proven bothersome to my disposition. Would you please, please find it within your heart to lower it? Thank you kindly, sir. And God bless your soul”. You of course would then salute the man, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and walk wistfully back to your seat where your pet Bald Eagle will screech with approval. This would be the American way. In Rwanda, like all other requests, you speak in the imperative. “Gabanya volime!” Lower Volume! There is no please. And the man will do it. He won’t try to fight you, and he won’t kick you off the bus for a callous show of impudence, and he will not challenge you to a duel for besmirching his Honor. There is nothing impolite about it - you could give the same command to your own mother the same way. Our individualistic nature, imbued into us by our culture, has taught us to fall over ourselves to respect the will of any other human, lest our wills be imposed upon rudely by others. Here in Rwanda, in a more collectivist culture, everyone speaks to each other the same way, and thus no word for Please ever came to be. There are of course, many other ways of being polite, but the example of “Please” example is a very interesting cultural dynamic that has manifested itself in the language.
Of course, these are just a few of the myriad differences in culture and language that I have seen in my first six weeks in the country. I am constantly baffled, frustrated and amazed at how different the human experience can be. Learning the language is but one of the many ways we are trying with all our might to fit into a country that is wholly different from our own. The experience has been one I won’t forget.
Post Script Fun
My Favorite word to say is “Umudugudu” which means village. Oo-moo-doo-goo-doo. The faster you can say it, the better, and more Rwandan.
The word I will definitely be bringing back to America is “Nta Kibazo”, no problem. Naa Cheebazo. You can use it for, that’s fine / that’s good / don’t worry about it / I’m fine. “NtaKibazo man, I hear ya!”.
Every word for something being good is a awesome blend of Z’s and other letters. Ni byiza, Niziza, Myiza, - Geeza, nzzeeezzaa, mooweeezzaa. When I forget the words I usually just muddle my mouth with Zzzz and everyone seems to understand.