Monthly Archive for April, 2008

Swahili and Briefly Contrasting Cultures in EA


Swahili is a pretty interesting language. There are no genders really, instead there are classes which act a bit like genders. The construction of person, tense and tone is all very compact. If you can keep words compartmentalized well enough into their classes it can be easy to use (note if).

Fun Mnemonics for sentence structure.

You jumped on me.
U (you, singular) and ni- (me, singular) are both based on the people/animal class which allows for first, second, and third person referencing in both singular and plural whereas most of the classes only have singular and plural. -li- indicates past tense. “Ruka” means to jump.

kitu uliyokiruka
The thing that you jumped on.
kitu uliyokiruka
kitu U-li-yo-ki-ruk-a (?)

-ki- and -yo- bits depend on the class, the -a at the end simply indicates a normal statement.

uruke mto
(You, please,) jump the pillow.
Uruke mto
U-ruk-e mto
-e ending indicates a request.


Much simpler than english. Pronunciation is vowel-based (you need a vowel sound to pronounce anything) and is always consistent.


Huffman Coding is an interesting concept in the creation of coded languages which formulates a way to express things it encodes compactly. Coming to Swahili from the somewhat more consonant-vowel-spelling centric language of English I immediately was struck by the brevity of most Swahili words that you use on a daily basis.
Nouns, verbs which are relevant here are short:

  • kuja: to come
  • kupa: to give
  • kuita: to name
  • kuruka: to jump
  • kulete: to bring
  • Kuota: to dream
  • Ndo: bucket (these are everywhere)
  • Mto: pillow

Some are similiar
Kuona: to see
Moto: fire.
Joto : heat

Sometimes it doesn’t hold of course:
Zaidi : More

Might be fun to run some statistics on languages and their variable lengths of words. I’m sure thinking has been done on this. The language is significantly smaller than romance languages you have to fudge an amazing amount of words and concepts with a combination of english and existing words. I’d like to see some studies capturing language general language specificity too. note to self.

Kenya and Tanzania

Gross differences of Kenyan and Tanzanians that I had noticed given three-four weeks in their respective cultures:

  • Tanzanians don’t discourage weight gain, significant weight loss is culturally sickly, Kenyans run a lot.
  • Tanzanians collectively have a drinking problem in older people, Kenyans might too.
  • Tanzanians think running is funny.
  • Kenyans speak more English and less culturally rich Kiswahili (according to TZians). Calling someone’s Swahili “Kenyan Kisw.” is an insult and it means they are thinking in English and translating to Kiswahili reversing the adjectives and things.
  • Tanzania is quite a bit poorer. Tanzania has no Trash Collection (not sure about Kenya) and so has MAJOR air pollution issues. (P.S. Air was at least partially a result of dry season)
  • Tanzanians are more ethnically diverse with a deep mix of Seventh Adventist (Saturday sabath), Islam (Friday celebration) and Catholicism & Pentecostal (Sunday), among others. When I was in Kenya I only really saw one family and they were devout Catholics. Tzians have a very peaceful history and coexist amazingly well with unperturbed democratically rotating religions of Presidents (Rais). The first president was Christian and encouraged schooling but the Muslim population discounted his efforts until the next term when a Islamic Rais was elected.
  • Both countries have Sisal (rope plant).
  • Both countries drive on the left.
  • Both have beautiful national parks and share wildlife though I haven’t seen much of that yet. Kenya seems to have more trouble managing the wildlife due to significant crossing of private land during migration. Tanzania actually owned all of its land not too long ago, now they give out land on 90 year deeds. Tanzania seems to have a preservationist instead of conservationionist approach to wildlife reserves. Tanzanians seem less concerned about poaching though I only have a few people concerned with this in either culture.
  • Tanzania is perhaps more libertarian. I suspect it has to do with the many religions and the success with peaceful coexistence and painless (compared to Kenya) departure from colonialism.
  • Dar Es Salaam doesn’t have a shantytown like Nairobi (according to our first volunteers who met us there).

I hadn’t reflected about this in quite a while (note that the above was written a few weeks after I arrived here). I will consider some more national and cultural differences and post them as I come up with them. I can’t wait to go back to Kenya. I also look forward to chatting with Willis at length over Skype, so far that hasn’t been possible (hint).

Up next on the blog is a delicious list of fruits that I have enjoyed so far as the fertile season has progressed throughout the country

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Homestay in General, 6 months in country.

Training might have been only 10 weeks long but it features strongly in my internal narrative so far so I’ll spend a bit more time on it.

After the initial settling in period I (mostly) got used to the necessity of two bucket baths per day, the grueling 9-10hrs of Swahili and education lessons (7am to 4-5pm) and my host family speaking at and around me only in Swahili. I learned that if I skipped any sleep and tried to ignore the equatorial sunrise and sunset schedule I would be surrounded by Charlie-Brown-adult-esque speakers jabbering away, with my brain parsing not a word. Occasionally I sat outside my Mama’s duka after class and all the neighborhood kids would crowd me. After requisite respect greetings all around we’d practice my new, profoundly basic vocabulary. If I was feeling too exhausted I’d stay inside and hang out with my host family’s kids. Often the PC staff would give us even more work to do at home and I’d pencil at that until nilihitaji kusinzia (I had to sleep) Zz. One time I even found time to write a letter home to America, I was thrilled, the next day I realized I had missed an assignment, oops. When lessons switched to pure swahili I had a bit of an issue because my brain would drop whole sentences it wasn’t making sense of, often these included assignments.

Shadow Visit

Peace corps gives us 3 days at a semi-randomly selected volunteer’s site to kuzoea (become accustomed to) life as a Peace Corps volunteer and to get some tips on setting up shop and getting things done. Mine was up to the mountains of Tanga. Through opportunities like this I have climbed (or been around) mountains from 5 different regions of Tanzania already. Climbing up into Leshoto town in a dala (minibus), continuing deep into the mountains and finally looking out onto the plains of Kenya on the other side of all of them–fantastic.

Tanga Juu

Besides the beauty it was very lush. My area can be quite lush but only during the rains which are slowly ending now at the beginning of April. After the rains stop they stop and there are only monthly sprinkles, or so the residents tell me. There are downsides, along with all the rain comes an impossible transit situation during the rainy season. The previous year my shadow host had been stretched by an 8hr walk from the nearest hospital, volunteer, bank and internet cafe. After arriving in Leshoto town there was 3 hours of dala rides, and then a 40 minute walk to my host.

She had no power and no running water anywhere near her house–simply a dirty spring which turned out to be enough. We visited the village center, bought some and for the first time really got out into a community to talk to neighbors. Somehow such core conversations do more for my Swahili than anything else. The next day the other 8 shadowing volunteers and their 5 hosts came together and we hosted a gathering without power–a daunting task. Many of them had hiked 3 hours through the mountain pass. We managed to bed all of the people into the 3 small rooms of my shadow host and I achieved the malaria-prophylaxis-disturbed sleep typical of training. The next day we ended, as I mentioned, over the plains of Kenya in the terminus mountain village of Mlalo where one of the PCVs had lived, until this year, at a mission church with the memorable vista. Another sparse night, this time with electricity, and the next morning we caught the bus back to Dar Es Salaam.

Site announcements

In the last few weeks of training we finally learned our site and the loose details of our situation. It was a tense ceremony there was a little crying but I think it was only from happy people. I was placed into the semi-arid Dodoma region. I was assigned to a college for teachers in an ICT post to help teach about computers and technology to student teachers and professors alike. I can’t go into specifics on the public side of the blog but as I love maps I might post some privately one day soon after I fix the troubles with the private login.

Site Announcements
My sitemate Ben holds an illustration of a huge Baobao Tree welcoming the selected few to our new, often sparse and dry region. The education volunteers go to high schools in practically every region of Tanzania–from the desert, from plains to the coast, from the mountains to the highlands, and (until recently) to the lakes. My Host Country National (Peace Corps Lingo for Tanzanian) coworkers are also transferred from every corner of Tanzania by the government–a nice parallel.

Since that day four months have passed, I’ve now been in Tanzania for 6 months. Hard to believe. I’ve spent more time living in Tanzania relative to any other US state besides Ohio. The past four months have gone so much faster than those first two and it still seems that I’ve accomplished so much personally and so little generally in the country. I look forward to the next 18 months and fully appreciate the extra year that Peace Corps demands from volunteers compared to other volunteering endeavors–I can see it is impossible to get to full productivity in one year only. More time is good.

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