Subtleties

Elimu ni maisha si vitabu.

Education is life not books.

The Swahili language is subtle.  Just when you begin to think you have a decent mastery of it, you will discover some new and baffling element.  It is a poetic language, one which intrinsically conveys respect, humility, and politeness.  It also employs several hundred, if not thousand, proverbs which Swahili speakers weave into their everyday speech.  These proverbs (methali in Swahili) are little gems of insight which often come in the form of metaphors or witty sayings.  For example:

Akili ni nywele, kila mtu ana zake”/ Intelligence is like hair, each person has their own type.

Or, one of my favorites:

Aninyimaye mbazi kanipunguzia mashuzi”/He who denies me beans, rids me of farts.

Yes, I realize that one may not seem like a proverb at first, but its literal meaning is “One who refuses your request for help (or money) prevents you from accumulating debt.”

In many ways Swahili reminds me of my own mother-tongue, Tamil.  Its simultaneous simplicity and complexity, the emphasis placed on respect, the importance of proverbs, certain idioms (shagalabagala meets kasamusa), reduplication, and so on—the parallels are undeniable.  This has only added another dimension to my experience of learning Swahili over the past two years at UF.

One of my first goals upon arrival in Zanzibar, Tanzania is to become fluent in Swahili.  I will enroll at the Institute of Swahili and Foreign Languages (Taasisi ya Kiswahili na Lugha za Kigeni), and my aim is to reach a high level of fluency and confidence in two months.  Between intensive language classes from 8 AM to noon, and full immersion, I hope to attain my goal.  I will fulfill my main objective as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar (I will write a future post on the Rotary organization) upon completing my Swahili language study, and at that point I will switch gears and begin a research study on high microfinance interest rates.  My field work, which I will also outline in a later post, will take me into the heart of the Tanzanian mainland, where I hope my language skills will be of use.  Next year in 2011, I will be working for a Kiva.org partner microfinance institution, most likely in East Africa, where again I will hopefully be able to use my Swahili skills.  These are of course my plans, but as my predecessors have reminded me time and time again, I will try to be prepared for anything, and cultivate my sense of humor.

What I know for sure is that East Africa is the place that I need to be.  There has been nothing else that I have been so sure of.  I am ready to receive what life has to teach me.  After all, as the Swahilis say, elimu ni maisha si vitabu.

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