Tag Archives: Kikuyu

Long finger nails

What’s with Kenyan dudes and long finger nails? I first noticed it a few years ago on a high-school aged kid in Kitui. I was a bit weirded out when I saw that both of his pinky-finger nails were strangely long and manicured, as if they hadn’t been cut in two months or so. I thought it was just this one weird guy, but since then I’ve seen it on all sorts of other guys (never women), including a few guys at ILRI.

I’ve heard of people having a long thumb nail for guitar picking, but this is just bizarre. My imagination runs wild with what it must signify…

  • Drug dealer: uses the pinky finger nail to count/sort/weigh cocaine.
  • Drug addict: uses the pinky finger nail to snort cocaine.
  • Mungiki member: pinky finger nail indicative of membership to the Mungiki criminal / religious / political Kikuyu sect.

I’ve never felt brave enough to ask someone with the finger nail affliction… but I asked one of my street-savvy buddies and he said he’s been asking himself the same question for years. Does anyone have any insider information? What’s the deal?

Aterere in Star Wars

Here’s a bit of funny trivia for you: what language is the funny co-pilot speaking in this Star Wars clip?

Surprise!! It’s Kikuyu, a language spoken in Kenya. I don’t understand what he’s saying, but after living in Kenya for a few years you can eventually distinguish between lots of languages… he apparently says something like, “Tell those guys over there to come over here.”

A Thousand Words

Running routeI’ve talked before about how surreal running around ILRI during my lunch break is. Two or three days a week we go jogging around the countryside surrounding the ILRI campus. Rain or shine, we strap up and run through the little towns of Uthiru and Ndambuini, on through the quiet village of Soweto (no, not the slum in South Africa), and down into a small valley filled with streams, cows, corn fields, and local dudes. You hear people speaking Kikuyu, Kiswahili, Kikamba, and then some little kid yells, “Mzungu!” and you remember, “Oohh shit, I live in Kenya.” I have gotten so used to this life that I do it without even thinking. I know I’ve written a lot over the past two years, so you guys must have some pictures in your head of what my life is like, but I also know that a picture is worth a thousand words.
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Niko Poa

I am realizing there is a problem with my Swahili: it’s too cool. Niko juu tu sana (I’m just too high up). It’s probably something that most Kenyan youths experience when talking to parents, teachers, or other adults in their lives. When I was living in Tala my limited interactions with adults were usually conducted in English or Kikamba (like in the market). Now that I’ve moved to Nairobi I am constantly around adults, and they know I understand Swahili so we use that to exchange friendly banter. Here are a list of phrases someone can inquire of you at various time of the day:

  • Umeamkaje? (How did you wake up?)
  • Habari yako? (How are you?)
  • Mambo vipi? (How are your issues?)
  • Niaje? (How is it?)
  • Niambie (Tell me)
  • Sema (Literally “say” or “speak”)
  • Sasa? (Kinda translates to “now”…)

I can respond poa (cool) to any of those and it is perfectly acceptable. I’m pretty sure it’s sanifu (pure) Swahili, but sometimes I still feel funny saying it to an adult. One mzee (respectful title for an older male) even admonished me for using it with him one time. I’ve since made up with him (we talked about the pros and cons of different kinds of legumes grown in Kenya). I’m only just becoming conscious of it, so I’ve had to start remembering other words in Swahili that are acceptable responses for those greetings. It’s an embarassingly-small list, but here you have it from the top of my head:

  • Salama (peaceful)
  • Mzuri (good)
  • Si mbaya (not bad)

There’s a sweet old lady at work who cleans up around the labs. In addition to cleaning she always offers to make me a cup of coffee in the kitchen. When she comes into my office in the morning she’ll ask how my morning is, and sometimes I’ll say, “Poa” without thinking. I know she understands, but she usually grins and laughs, so I always feel funny afterwards. Lately she’s taken to teaching me greetings in her mother tongue, Kikuyu.

Something I’ve noticed is that young people get excited when I speak Sheng/Swahili, but old people are tickled when I speak their vernacular (Kamba, Kikuyu, Luhya, Maasai, etc). I don’t know why but I have developed a good memory for strange words in random languages. I guess it’s because of the shock value attached to responding, “Ni kwega” to someone who asks, “Uhoro waku?” in Kikuyu, or telling someone, “Maabe!” (let’s go) in Maasai.