Your first Swahili lesson – small talk

“Muzungu! Jumbo.” (White! Hello)

“Jumbo.” (Hello)

“Mambo?” (How are you?)

“Poa. Habari?” (Good. How are you?)

“Sallaama. Karibu Tanzania!” (Good. Welcome to Tanzania!)

“Asante sana!” (Thank you very much!)

Are you struggling to learn some Swahili?

This is your first Swahili lesson that you’ll master for sure after just a few days of Tanzania (I’m not very sure on the spelling, though). The method for mastering this lesson is, of course, repetition. You’ll have to go through this dialogue at least 10 times per day, maybe 20 times is a more realistic number.

People are smiling at you and greeting you all the time. People you don’t know. Sometimes they just stare and then you feel obliged to greet or say something.  Or at least wave. Even if you’re riding a bike on a sandy and bumpy road.

To be honest or not to be honest

I didn’t understand small talk very well back when I was living in UK. It seemed like a very shallow interaction that doesn’t mean anything. I still don’t really get it. But it is, in the end, a simple way to acknowledge the people around you, a way to give a smile and be nice with whoever happens to cross your path.

It’s fun when you’re in a good mood. It’s a very simple process, you smile and wave and smile and wave and smile and wave and go through the same small dialogue and routine over and over again. It comes easy, even if you’re not the small talk kind of person.

But it’s terrible when the honest answer to “Mambo?” is not “Poa.” or when you just want to be by yourself and have some space. Then you have to fake the smile, you have to say the dishonest “poa” (unless you feel like telling all your problems to all the strangers you meet), you have to put effort into being nice.

Smile. Right now.

Maybe the power of small talk is to force you to smile even when you don’t feel like. It is, in the end, a good exercise. And I do usually get amused at this routine, even when I’m not in the best mood.

Maybe if you do this small talk routine at least 10 times every day for years, you get to learn how to control your feelings better. You don’t show so easily when you’re angry or unhappy or excited or enthusiastic. It’s more stable. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure.

Yes, this IS the culture where conflicts are not openly discussed. People get annoyed with you, but they don’t really show it. They have a different view than you, but they don’t really tell you. They are angry, but they’re still smiling. They’re hurt, but you can’t tell. Whereas I’m like an open book, I’m incapable of hiding it when I get annoyed, even when I try.

Muzungu! Muzungu!

Going back to your first Swahili lesson: The other funny thing is hearing the word “muzungu” (white) everywhere you go. This is actually not just about Swahili. It’s “mukua” in the north of Namibia and Zambia, “makua” in Botswana. “Oshilumbu” in Owambo.

It’s mostly kids running and waving at you, but sometimes also adults. Robbie had a good point: how would it be perceived if a Tanzanian/black African walked in an European country and everyone would call him or her: “Black! Hello!”? How conscious does one get about the colour of their skin because of this simple act considered normal here?

One Tanzanian, passer-by as well, told me I should reply with “nyeusi” (black) to kids/people calling me “muzungu”. I did that. Some people got surprised and frowned a little.

Either way, it’s just part of daily life.

Na wewe? Mambo?

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