Thursday, November 8, 2012


“My name is Eugene, what is yours?”
I was sitting in the back corner of the dala dala squished between Eugene and a lady in a red kanga. In the dala dala, everything is squished – the crumpled bills that you fetch from your pocket when your stop is reached, the goats that bleat between bags that press against your calves, sweaty arms and legs and especially hips – they’re all squished.
I contemplated attempting to answer in Swahili, but I chose English.
“My name is Alyssa.”
I had been watching Eugene in my peripheral vision. He was a talkative guy. He entered the bus after me and immediately tapped on the shoulder of the woman in front of him to commence conversation. He then tapped the woman next to her, and the woman next to her. All of them responded to him with polite interest and the conversations did not last more than a minute a piece. His eyes flitted my way three or four times before he introduced himself.
“Shika moo, baba” I said in respect.
That was when our exchange entered the realm of Eng-Swahili.
“Marahaba, Unajua Kiswahili?” He asked if I knew his language.
“Kidogo, kidogo,” I said. He seemed to assume I was being modest until he asked another question and I had no idea how to respond.
“What are you doing here?” He translated.
We spoke about my work and his work tentatively, both aware that a good half of our words were being lost in translation. I interrupted him to shout “Kaka, Mashine. Mil tatu?” to the front of the bus. The boy with his torso out the window of the sliding door, the one who collected the bus fares, turned to me and nodded saying, “aya.” Some heads turned at my American accent and a few passengers chuckled in approval as they realized the white girl knew some Swahili.
As we neared my stop, Eugene began firing a few questions with urgency. He had forgotten to raise some key small-talk points of conversation: my age, the duration of my stay, which state is my home state. Eugene entered rapid-fire mode as we pulled over to drop me.
“New York, Kuminanane, one year!” I riled off. “Kuaheri, baba!”
“Aya, asante Dada” Eugene responded.

That conversation was the most consecutive Swahili I had spoken in a week. It also was lengthier than any of the exchanges Eugene shared with people who spoke his language fluently. We all love to be teachers and learners. It’s beautiful to experience the fruits borne from the desire to learn and teach as we try to bridge gaps of all forms.

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