Sunday, July 23, 2006

A Kenyan's Guide To Kenya, Vol. I

I’ve often been terribly disappointed by the tourist guidebooks written about Kenya. Most of the time they tell you stuff you already know, like “you can go on safari and see some lions.” That’s probably why you wanted to come here in the first place, so that’s not helpful. Other times they give you all manner of useless information. For example: what’s the point of telling you how to ask for directions in Kiswahili if you’re not going to understand the answer? (Sometimes they seem to be written by a malicious Kenyan who hates tourists. One time I was lying on the beach and was accosted by an earnest American who said, “Jambo. Nyinyi muna kula viazi?” First of all, no Kenyan says “Jambo.” Secondly, I was lying on the beach, I was alone and I definitely wasn’t eating potatoes.)

These books never tell you about all the amazing people you can meet in Kenya, or how to understand what they’re saying. Determined to correct this horrible wrong, I’m issuing the first of many useful, practical tips for our many visitors. Herewith Volume I of “A Kenyan’s guide to Kenya.” (Disclaimer: this is written from a Nairobi perspective. Other parts of the country are a whole other story and will cost you extra.)

Here’s what you should know:

When we want you to pass us something – the salt, say – we’ll point with our mouths. Example: We’ll catch your eye then say, “Nani.” Then we’ll use our mouths to point at the desired object. This is achieved by a slight upward nod followed by an abrupt thrusting out of the lower lip, which is pointed in the object’s general direction. There’s no explanation for this. (“Nani” can be roughly translated as, oh I don’t know, “Whats-your-face,” “You,” or “Thingie.” We’re unfailingly polite.)

Frequently, and for no reason whatsoever, we’ll refer to a person as “another guy.” However, this MUST be pronounced/slurred thus: An-aa guy. This also applies to “the other day,” which is when some momentous event in our lives always took place. We do the same thing with Kiswahili words like ‘bwana’, which is pronounced ‘bana.’
Example: “I was driving in town the aaa day and this guy comes from nowhere and cuts me off, bana. Man I abused him!” ‘Abused’ in this sentence must be drawn out and emphasised for maximum effect: a-BUSE-d.

We claim to speak English and Kiswahili, which technically means that we should be able to communicate with the English-speaking world and Tanzania. What we really mean is that if you’re not Kenyan you won’t understand a damn word we say or why we say it.
Example: “Sasa” in Kiswahili means “now.” We use it as a greeting.
Correct usage: “Sasa?” “Ah, fit.” It confuses us that Tanzanians don’t understand this.

We also, just as randomly, might greet you by saying, “Otherwise?” Common response: “Uh-uh.” There is no explanation for this.

Kenyans are multi-lingual, but all this means is that we believe that if we translate something word for word from one language to another it will make sense. A Kenyan might say, for example, “You mean you’re not brothers? But you look each other!” Be kind, they just think that muna fanana can slip into English unfiltered. Speaking of filters, that’s why some people (tribe/ethnicity withheld to protect my uncles) will claim to ‘drink’ cigarettes. If you’re not Kenyan you won’t understand this. Let it go.

We can buy beers at police stations. Grilled meat too. Heck, in some cop shops you can even play darts. I am NOT making this up. Example: “Man the aaa day I pitiad (pass through) the Spring Valley cop station after work. I was leaving there at midnight, bana. I was so wasted! I told those cops to just let me go home.”

Oh, that’s another thing: when we’re leaving a place (your house, a wedding, the cop shop bar) we tend to say, “Ok, me let me go…” We’re not implying that you’re holding us against our will; we’re just saying that we’d like to go. (The plural is, of course, “Us let us go.”)

When Kenyans say that you’re mad, it’s a profound compliment. “Man this guy is mad. You know what he did…” then they’ll go on to recount some of your admirable exploits. It’s high praise. Smile modestly and accept it. By modest I mean look down, draw a circle in the dust with the toe of your shoe (or just your toe) and then smile, draw your mouth down into a brief frown, and smile again. Alternate quickly a few times. This is known by English-speaking Kikuyus as The Nyira Smile, or The Sneering Smile. Then say “aah, me?” in a high, sing-songy voice. However, only do this if you’re female.

On the other hand, if Kenyans ask, “are you normal? (Sometimes pronounced “nomo”), then they’re getting a bit concerned about your state of mental health. Reassure them by buying another round.

Which brings me to Alcohol. Our national pastime. You know that myth about Eskimos having thousands of word for ‘snow?’ Well, our beloved drinks are known by a thousand names and phrases too. Kenyans will ‘catch pints (or just ‘catch’),’ ‘go for a swallow,’ have a ‘jweeze,’ ‘keroro,’ ‘kanywaji,’ ‘jawawa…’ really, no list can be exhaustive. Be aware, though, that the words you use will immediately tip off your audience about your age. (For the Kenyans reading this, no I was NOT born during the Emergency, you swine.)

Our other pastime is religion. (What contradiction?) If you’re broke on a Sunday – and your hangover is not too bad – stroll over to one of our parks and catch some open-air preaching. Jeevanjee Gardens in town is a prime location. There you will see us in our full multi-lingual, spiritual splendour. There is always, and I mean always, a freelance preacher thundering in English while his loyal and enthusiastic sidekick translates into Kiswahili.
Preacher: And then Jesus said…
Sidekick: Alafu Yesu akasema…
Preacher: Heal!
Sidekick: Pona!
Preacher: HEAL!
Sidekick: PONA!
It’s hypnotic. We suggest you go with a Kenyan who understands both languages because sometimes the sidekick nurses higher ambitions and, instead of translating, tries to sneak in his own parallel sermon. If you’re bored in Kenya it’s because you’re dead.

As you’ve probably figured out, we like abbreviating things. (Why would the word ‘another’ have to be any shorter than it is? Why would the Kenyans reading this find it odd that I keep talking about ‘Kiswahili?’) This can lead to unnecessary confusion. But by now you should have figured out that when you’re catching and someone says, “Si you throw an-aa ra-o?” they of course want you to buy another round of drinks. Don’t worry about the ‘si;’ like so many words in Swa it’s impossible to translate. Embrace it, sprinkle it liberally in your speech and move on. There are several such words, which will be tackled in Volume II.

Coming up in Volume II: why you shouldn’t try to understand sheng (and please dear God don’t try to speak it), why your strange ideas about forming queues won’t work here, and why Nairobians love pornographic chicken. Contains a glossary of untranslatable but essential Swa words (like ‘ebu,’ ‘ati,’ ‘kumbe’ and ‘kwani’).

Friday, July 14, 2006

Before we go any further, there are some things you should know about me…

1. I’m obsessed with Paul Tergat. I love him more than is reasonable. I met him once and almost licked his face.

2. I love athletics, but this doesn’t mean I can or should run. I did once. I was sixteen, in Form Five, in a mixed boys and girls school. I was a last-minute inclusion in the 4X400 relay during sports day. I didn’t have my shorts, so I borrowed some from a (guy) friend. He was MUCH thinner than me. I grabbed the baton and my moment of glory. I was soaring. I believed. The wind was pushing me along. The wind was my friend; I felt it pushing my whole body. This was because the shorts had ripped from top to bottom, falling into two neat and very separate pieces, exposing my very red underwear. My last memory was of six-year-old boys screaming, falling, collapsing with laughter. When I came to I was in Form Six.

3. On my first day in New York City a dirty, toothless, homeless woman followed me for three blocks, shouting that I was the filthy whore who’d stolen her husband.

4. The first time I got my hair ‘relaxed.’ It took me months to convince my mother to let me, and another few months to convince my aunt to give me the Revlon Relaxer Kit she’d brought from London. I finally sat down, with my cousin, at the upscale salon where ‘everyone’ went. Then we waited for the relaxer to do its magic. Nothing happened. The hairdresser came to check. She sniffed the container. “Ah, I know why this thing isn’t working,” she yelled. “It’s rotten!”

5. So I cut my mangled hair. Then, determined to grow it, got some hair extensions and a fancy braided style. Went to Mombasa, swam as usual. Wondered why these bratty mzungu boys were following me in the pool. The next morning at breakfast, right there next to the cornflakes and milk, one of the brats marched up to me, holding a bunch of my cowrie-shell adorned braids in his sweaty little hand. “Here,” he announced, “you keep leaving these in the pool.” Then to his friend, confidentially, sorrowfully, “She does her hair so tight it falls off. She’ll be bald soon.”

6. My life can be described as a “History of Increasing Humiliation.”* See 2, 3, 4, and 5 above.

7. Then there are times when I feel no shame. I once stole a rock. I was in Standard One, six years old, and a girl had brought a shiny white stone to ‘show and tell’ or some such nonsense. I liked it, pretended it was mine - I even showed it to the teacher again, claiming credit - and took it home. I kept it till I was in high school. That’s right, a rock. Yeah, I’m bad.

8. People keep asking me what’s playing on my iPod. As if. I still have a Betamax. My niece thinks I’m cool and modern, but that’s because she thinks it’s a microwave.

*With thanks to Martin Amis, who understands.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

In love with Wordy Harry...

"I know what you're thinking, punk," hissed Wordy Harry to his new editor, "you're thinking, 'Did he use six superfluous adjectives or only five?' -- and to tell the truth, I forgot myself in all this excitement; but being as this is English, the most powerful language in the world, whose subtle nuances will blow your head clean off, you've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel loquacious?' -- well do you, punk?"

The Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest winner was announced today, and the sentence above came in second. SECOND, I ask you! Ok, the winner was pretty bad but the Wordy Harry? Needed to win!

Friday, July 07, 2006

First Post... more to come!

So I finally got a blog. It's about time; tired of walking around writing things in my head. Dashing home to jot them down, then finding I'd forgotten them. I'm also so PISSED OFF with some people that I need an anonymous place to GET. IT. OUT. Oh, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Hey, I feel better already!

More soon!