I think I know about 50 words in Chichewa, the national language in Malawi. I know how to ask for water, bananas, and a beer. I know how to offer greetings at any time of day (there are separate ones for morning, day, and evening) and how to say I don’t want something. I know how to say “thank you,” “I’m sorry, I don’t have any money,” and to say “my name is Kate, what is your name?”
And that’s about it. After a year and half here, I should speak much better. Chichewa, like many Bantu languages, is beautiful and melodic, but in my opinion, freaking difficult to learn.
I remember reading a short story in 5th grade about a man enslaved by a Native American tribe. He couldn’t speak the language at all, but suddenly, one day, after a year or so, something clicked and he knew that two women were talking about water and the whole language suddenly made sense to him. I keep waiting for that to happen to me. I keep hoping to become instantaneously fluent in Chichewa.
Luckily, people in Blantyre are so nice that when you throw out the few phrases you do know, they look impressed and compliment you. So then you think, “great! well, I’m sorted then. That’s all I need!” But as soon as you’re outside of the urban areas, knowing Chichewa would definitely come in handy. It would also be handy in the work place. At work, everyone’s English is perfect, but during lunch and down time, most people switch to Chichewa. And they laugh constantly. Seriously, they are constantly joking! And I am just sitting there, laughing along nervously, pretending I get it. More recently, if not joking, people are talking about the political situation. Again something that I’d like to be able to understand.
One of the most interesting traits of Malawians speaking English is that many will use “l” and “r” interchangeably. I’ve heard several explanations for this – some say that there was no “r” in Chichewa until the missionaries came (Today’s lesson on Jesus is brought to you by the letter ‘r’). I’ve also heard that while it seems like there is no rhyme or reason to it, ‘l’s are used after certain consonants and ‘r’s after others. I’ve also heard someone say that he’s just being lazy.
This habit can make conversations really interesting. Once, someone said to Sandy, “I leally like football. Do you pray?”
There are lots of words where switching the ‘l’ and ‘r’ create completely different words, and therefore completely different sentences. For example:
Rocks/Locks “How much should we pay for rocks on the doors?”
And Sandy’s favorite – Collect/Correct – Sandy, could you go correct Kate?
There is a town outside of Blantyre where signs read both Lilangwe and Lirangwe.
Once we were at a police checkpoint when the friendly policeman asked how our trip had been. “Great,” we said, “but too much rain.” “Rain?” he said confused “Rain? Oh! Lain! Yes, too much lain.”
The thing is, it’s leally leally easy to fall into the habit. I have caught myself ordering lice with my chicken. I have said ‘let’s go down to the liver.’ I’ve even caught myself saying, “Exactry.”
Again, there does seem to be a grammatical reason for this entertaining habit and it seems to be common in many Bantu language speaking places. Maybe it’s like Southerners turning ‘t’s into ‘d’s and eliminating the letters o,u, and a in ‘you all.’ Or maybe I need to learn Chichewa to understand.
In the meantime, rooking folwald to liting again soon!