The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Friday, April 29, 2011

Toffs, Tongues and Bovines

This weekend we could be swanning it with the ex patriati up in Kigali, feasting on suckling pig and drinking from large barrels of mead. It's in homage to an event titled 'The Royal Wedding' which hasn't much crossed the Kibungan radar. There are not too many children wearing Will and Kate paper hats and waving Union Jacks in our neighbourhood. Strangely enough, the last time there was such an occurrence Stella and I were just getting to know one another in another far flung ex-colonial country. As was the case then in Malaysia, with that love struck couple Charlie and Di, it seems to be essential to invite everyone and anyone with sufficient Brit in them to an elaborate function at the ambassador's residence, to squander any last remaining reserves in the UK treasury. And naturally everyone wants to go. Pity it's more than two hours' away, Stella's teaching and it's too much effort to go online and persuade the Internet that I am 50% Brit, 50% Aussie and 100% Scoaaish (you have to say that in thick brogue). I am sure to miss some wonderful blog material.
Note that this is a comprehensive dictionary

So, you will just have to make do with the wonders of Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda that I am attempting to come to grips with. Many say that it's impossible for a muzungu to learn because it has 16 noun classes. I didn't know what that meant either until it was explained that the prefix of an adjective changes according to the noun that precedes it. For example, the adjective iza (good, nice, great, kind, beautiful, fine, lovely, smashing, tip top, bobby-dazzling etc) can become mwiza, beza, myiza, ryiza, meza, cyiza, byiza, nziza, rwiza, keza, twiza, bwiza, kwiza or heza depending, roughly, on the first consonant of the noun (as in French, adjectives usually come after nouns). So inka nziza (handsome/gorgeous cow) is the rule and amaso meza (nice eyes) has the right ring to it. Those of you paying attention will have noticed that there is an upside to all this in that the root 'iza' can mean lots of things which saves heaps of time on your vocabulary searches. So, inshuti nziza (good friend) Iza in Cooktown, Queensland, look at all the ibintu byiza (wonderful things) you are in the Rwandan language. I don't bother to memorise the noun classes but just seek out the word vibe, man! The approximation is usually good enough and you learn by trial and error. It makes for a very onomatopoeic language.
There are only three English words from five letters of the alphabet that need translating and 'girth' had to be one of them
Okay, so I'm a geek who likes languages and is not afraid to blunder in and make a fool of myself. This is fine as we are pretty ridiculous already with our loaded backpacks, wide brim hats and hurried gait. They say that the Inuit have numerous words for snow as the Scottish do for drizzle. Well, cows feature pretty heavily in Kinyarwanda. Having a cow here is important and there is even a policy - girinka - to provide every family in Rwanda with one. Since the launch of the programme in 2006, 106,000 families have benefited and the target is 250,000 by 2012. Given that the Rwandan population is around 10 million I think these families must be extended. In Rwanda, the cow is a symbol of love, peace and unity but is also of great economic importance for subsistence farmers. There are even proper milk bars here where people come in to drink a pint of the stuff. My favourite Kinyarwanda exclamation is yampaye inka (he gave me a cow!) which is usually translated as good grief (or maybe the American holy cow). Using it as an expression of surprise or anxiety - as I did on the bus back from Kigali recently when the driver appeared intent on killing us and every pedestrian in sight - is a great way to get easy laughs. What is it about this multi-stomached ruminant that encourages such linguistic creativity? Why are the French vachement bien ('cowly' fine) whereas British English smears itself in gore (bloody good)? I suppose it must date back to Agincourt where the English killed lots of French and replaced them with Jersey cattle or did I just make that up?
How exactly do you 'make yourself to be begged'?

Here are a few unusual words to do with cows; kugobwa = to be milked furtively; kubangurira = to take a cow to mate; kugonora = to heal a cow without milk; amasitu = to milk a cow that has just been ridden; gusizana = to bellow after a calf; (and my own personal favourite) umugogoro = exhausted cows (milked for Europeans). And, no, I didn't make any of them up. A single woman or girl is umukobwa and the verb gukobwa (to bring a cow = the dowry) is to get married. Nowadays, a cow isn't usually offered to the newly weds by the wife's parents at the time of marriage but later when the first child is born. As it happens Justin, our house guard, is in his village tonight (leaving us unprotected!) having a simpler ceremony for the recent birth of his third child. So, as you can see, Kinyarwanda may only have one word to describe a dozen fancy English adjectives but it is a very rich language indeed in matters that concern the livelihood of its people.
Kissing once and drinking avidly seems a strange combo

Gusoma means to sip, to kiss and to read, the last definition telling you about the origin of the word from an oral tradition - you read aloud moving your lips. I also like the fact that you can drink together and kiss at the same time. Guhuruza is to mobilise warriors and to have diarrhoea. If I was in danger of being slaughtered I, too, would get the shits. Some other verbs are very interesting in their stress patterns. I went to a school the other day and said, in Kinyarwanda, that I was delighted to visit. I had to be careful to make sure that I said gusura (visit) with a long second u sound because if I had said it with a short u sound it would have meant that I was delighted to fart. Not being sure of the length of my vowel stretch I turned what is probably a gusuura into a gusuuuura just to be on the safe side.
I've got to use umuhekesha in a sentence before I leave
It can also be a very long language as in the translation of the following important English sentence in my dictionary: "this water has many tadpoles" = agakoko kaba mumazi iyo gakuze gahinduka igikeri aya mazi arimo udukoko twinshi dukura tukahinduka ibikeri. Got that?
Batwa are the pygmy people of Rwanda - 1% of the population

In the past tense and present perfect the language gets more stressful. Nagiye means I went/I have gone. Roughly, if the time is recent - I went to the office this afternoon/ I have just been to the office, then the sound is long and flat. Yesterday and further back is considered far past and the sound of the 'i' is high and short - nag-I-ye. We got our teacher to use both in sentences and I remain to be convinced of the difference at least to my unaccustomed ears. I think I will be sticking with the present tense even for the past for quite a while yet. It gets you understood most of the time which is the main thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment