I am realizing there is a problem with my Swahili: it’s too cool. Niko juu tu sana (literally: 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 — like in the market — were usually conducted in English or Kikamba. 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? (literally: “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 embarrassingly 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 Swahili or Sheng (street 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.