Learning English & Swahili

I’ve been picking up some new words in Swahili – including some words that are probably best not mentioned! I’m benchmarking my progress against the student’s progress in learning English.


For every word or phrase that I teach the young people, I make sure I know the equivalent in Swahili. So, whilst I have no idea how to explain what Kijana Kwanza is or does in Swahili, I know all the most obscure parts of the human body that I would probably never use in any language!


At the dinner table, we only speak Swahili. Or rather everyone speaks Swahili and I quietly tuck into the staple diet of rice and beans. Every now and then you catch a word or phrase you understand, but recently I’ve been rather intrigued by a word that the young people appear to use a lot – ‘chocolisation‘.


Yesterday, I built up the courage to ask what it meant (I’m often nervous to ask, because everyone starts laughing as I attempt to pronounce a new word). After the usual giggles and guffaws, I was introduced to my first word of Swanglish – an admixture of Swahili and English.


Chocolisation has nothing to do with chocolate, which was my first assumption. It comes from the word ‘choco‘ which means ‘silly’ or ‘stupid’ and by adding ‘-lisation‘ it refers to an action that is perceived to be frivolous or ridiculous. Chocolisation is a common term at Kijana Kwanza, and it has also entered my daily vocabulary to describe anything risible or stupid.


As Teacher Mzungu, my presence is a bit of a novelty. I think I’m also seen by the young people as the guy who ultimately makes the decisions, which is not strictly true. Whenever Sadath or Maulid refuse a request, the young people, normally represented by Saidi, turn to me and ask for permission. They’ve also come to realise that I normally say yes.


Saidi is always the spokesperson for the more controversial request. Although I’m not supposed to have favourites, I seem to have a soft spot for him. And the young people have caught on. That’s partly due to his story, which moved me a great deal.


It is one thing to be an orphan, like most of our young people, but it’s another to also be a street child. I’m not quite sure where Mujibu found him, but I can see in his tired eyes that were it not for Kijana Kwanza, he would be roaming the streets of Dares Salaam, or dancing for tourists in exchange for a few coins to buy food.


Saidi has no sponsor, so I took it upon myself to raise the funds needed for him to stay at Kijana Kwanza for at least 1 year. He’s also not the brightest of the pack – but he’s determined and thirsty for knowledge.


Last week, I gave him my Swahili-English phrase book, which he now carries around with him wherever he goes (which I find in the strangest of places – the kitchen, the toilet and once under my bed). Every few minutes he opens the book to learn a new touristy word or phrase. And when he’s memorised it, he comes to me, smiling cheekily, to ‘test’ out his new phrase. Sometimes it’s amusing, like when he confused the word for ‘kitchen’ with ‘chicken’.


But sometimes I watch him sitting alone in the compound, staring into the distance, overwhelmed by some sorrow that I could never comprehend. I wonder what great tragedies those tired eyes have witnessed. We may not be able to erase the memories, but we can hope for a better future. For Saidi, and all the other young people at Kijana Kwanza. 


Mohammed S Mamdani


PS. If you’d like to sponsor Saidi’s education, drop me a message. It costs £65/month to sponsor one of our secondary school students. 

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