How about a quick, simple lesson in the Zulu language and then I’ll share some “random observations” I’ve made and recorded when I journal; things that don’t fit in any particular place or order, but which I’ve found interesting?
Sanibonani (san – rhymes with lawn – ee – bow – NON – ee) is the way one greets more than one person – “Greetings!” To greet one individual, the greeting is Sawubona (saw – wu – BONE –a), or, if you’re greeting a woman older than you are and want to be a little more respectful, try Sawubonama. Ma is Zulu for mother, or woman, or madam. The correct term, by the way, for the Zulu language is isiZulu, not to be confused with plain, old Zulu, as in the Zulu people or the Zulu culture. When pronouncing Zulu words, the emphasis is almost always on the second-to-last syllable. This means that in two-syllable words, the emphasis is on the first syllable, since it doubles as the second-to-last syllable. As in yebo (YAY-bow).
Perhaps the most versatile word in Zulu – maybe any language — is yebo, which officially means yes. It’s also the most common response to any greeting. It also can mean OK, hi, sure, hey!, what’s up?, how’s it goin’?, whatever and probably a bunch of other uses I’m not thinking of. After you’ve greeted someone and they’ve responded, “Yebo,” it’s common for that to be followed , by either party, with “Unjani?” or one of its variations – kunjani or ninjani. (Ninjani is plural, as in asking more than one person). “Kun” and “un” rhyme with loon. These all mean “How are you?” the most common response being, “Ngiyaphila” (n and h are silent, hard g: gee (rhymes with tea) -a-PEE-la). This means, “I am well.” The final term in the exchange might be, “Nathi ngiyaphila, or “I am fine also.” (This is what I learned in language class during training, but now that I’m 300 miles away in KwaZulu-Natal, I’ve seen that some people here say it in reverse: Ngiyaphila nathi (pronounced NAU-tee). If you’re answering for more than one person, it’s “Siyaphila,” though it’s not unusual for individuals to use the plural in reference only to themselves. Another thing I’ve noticed is that KwaZulu-Natal Zulus love to abbreviate things. It’s not unusual for “sawubona” to be shorted to “sawubone,” or “son-bon,” or even “sa-bo.” Ngiyapila is often shortened to gee-a-pee, dropping the last syllable. Another word I use a lot is ngiyabonga (gee-a-BONG-ga), or thank you.
As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs and Facebook posts, I struggled in the language classes that are an important part of PC training, not unusual with older volunteers, I noticed. In the final assessment at the end of training, I scored in the lowest possible of 7 categories of language proficiency. But it was enough to graduate! The other four trainees in my 5-person language training group – Christopher, Emily, Cara and Sara – did quite well compared to me, though I’m sure they had their moments. Language training was really the only part of pre-service training I didn’t care for. I’m used to accomplishing what I set out to achieve and it was enormously frustrating to be unable to do that in learning Zulu. Even now I’m looking for a good tutor in my village, something the Peace Corps will give me an allowance to pay for. Fortunately, most people I encounter day to day speak passable English, so I’m able to communicate most of the time. The biggest challenge is understanding what’s being said in rapid Zulu when I’m in one of the many meetings I attend.
I also understand, accept and agree with the idea put forth by Nelson Mandela when he said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” The heart of Peace Corps philosophy.
To prove my point, I’ve given up sunglasses, even though it’s sunny here most of the time, so that I can make eye contact with everyone I pass on the street. When the major form of transport is your feet, you pass a lot of people, even on a short trip. It’s not like I can shrink back and be unobserved when I’m the only white guy in 70,000 people in my municipality, or group of 20-some villages. If someone doesn’t return my eye contact, I usually let it go. That could be cultural. Most people do make eye contact with me and when they do I always offer an appropriate greeting. I am the only White American many of these people have ever seen and the impression I leave with them is the impression they will have of all Americans. It’s a responsibility I take seriously. Ninety-nine percent of the time the people I greet respond appropriately. To the few that don’t, I give the benefit of the doubt, believing they are not being rude, but are struck speechless: not only is there a White guy in their town, he speaks to them, and not only does he speak to them, he speaks in Zulu!
— So. African men often hold hands or link arms and there’s nothing sexual or romantic about it. It’s their culture. Even the most masculine of men do it.
— There’s never enough light indoors. Most rooms, even in the nicest of houses, have a single, 40-watt bulb hanging from the ceiling, which doesn’t provide enough light by which to read. This was a big problem for me with my host family in training, since there was no outlet in the room to plug in a reading lamp. I used a flashlight to study. For my current housing I bought a small reading lamp that fixes the problem – except when the power fails.
— It’s important when walking in rural areas to always look down as you walk – as if shy or depressed – because if you don’t, it’s only a matter of time, probably not much time, before you step in a cow pie, goat crap or chicken shit! It’s everywhere!
— The courtesy clerks at the grocery stores in my “shopping town” will escort you home or to the taxi rank, up to several blocks, pushing your groceries in a cart. I thought this was a great service one doesn’t see commonly in the U.S., but then someone told me it’s mainly so carts don’t get stolen or not returned, which, as we all know, is a big problem in the U.S.
— Hand washing: something that in the U.S. is taken for granted. It’s quick, simple and as most people know, one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs and disease. The Peace Corps health programs, including the one in which I work, stress the importance of it and we never miss an opportunity to preach it, especially to children. But, ironically, I routinely go all day without washing my hands because it’s so hard to make clean water and soap, and an appropriate place to wash, available. Often, the first thing I do when I get home is heat a little water so I can wash my hands in warm, soapy water for the first time since that morning’s “bucket bath.”
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Peace Corps “core expectation” number 2: “Commit to improving the quality of life of the people with whom you live and work; and, in doing so, share your skills, adapt them, and learn new skills as needed.”