I went to Kenya to study for a bachelor’s degree six years ago, and, at first, I was surprised at the way everyone changed their intonation on learning that I was Tanzanian.
“Naomba nikusarimie.” “Umerara poa ndugu yangu?” “Naomba nikuombe uniretee kazi yangu.” (May I greet you? Did you sleep well, my brother? Can I please ask you to bring back my work?)
I do not know who told these people that all Tanzanians speak like that. And I am not referring to the courtesy in speech but replacing “l’ with “r.” It took me a long time to explain to them that not all Tanzanians have the “r” problem. It is mostly those from Sukuma who do.
But it never stopped.
The good thing with being a Tanzanian in Kenya is that you are considered the Kiswahili guru. I was always happy to teach my Kenyan friends proper grammar.
I could not get over how they always said “mandizi” as the plural for “ndizi.” In Kiswahili mufti, the plural for ndizi is ndizi.
I had three roommates at the university, all Kikuyu. They spoke in their mother tongue all the time, and told me that almost everyone in Kenya knew a little Kikuyu. They said if I wanted to have a comfortable stay at the university, and in Kenya, I had to learn the language.
I was happy to learn Kikuyu, thinking that by the time I finished my studies I would be fluent in it.
In Tanzania, when someone offers to teach you their language, it bridges the gap between you two.
My Kikuyu lessons did not last long. Actually, just two days. One evening I said good night to one of my classmates, a pretty girl called Wahura. I later asked my roommates what tribe she was and, from her name — just as in Tanzania, family names tell your tribe — they deduced she was Kikuyu.
So I asked them to teach me how to say “Good night” in Kikuyu. Happily, they told me it was “Koma ngui ino.”
So I sent Wahura a “good night” text message in Kikuyu and she did not reply that night.
In the morning, I learnt what I thought was a good night message actually meant, “Sleep, you dog”!
She had a good laugh when she realised I had not meant to insult her. But it marked the end of my Kikuyu lessons. To this day, I do not know how to say “good night” in Kikuyu.