This is the third post of a series aiming at humorously outlining the differences between the way Kenyans and Tanzanians express themselves in Swahili.
The first two posts of this series can be found here:
In Tanzania, there is this whole conception of Kenyans being impolite, arrogant and generally uncivilized while Kenyans usually perceive their southern neighbors as pleasantly warm but waaaay too slow. After hearing this litany for several months from quite a number of people on both sides of the border, I set out to find out what really lied behind these ideas. Below are my thoughts on this…
- Use of kinship terms
One endearing feature of Tanzanian (and, as far as I’ve seen, coastal) Kiswahili is the use of kinship terms. A waitress will be ‘dada‘ (sister), a taxi driver ‘Mjomba‘ (uncle) or ‘Baba‘ (Dad) if he is older or ‘kaka‘ (brother) if he is in the same age group as you are. An older person would address me as ‘mwanangu‘ (my child) etc.
As I was pointing out in an earlier post, establishing a connection with one’s interlocutor is one of the unspoken objectives of conversation and as such, it goes well beyond the content that one is to communicate. Being a ‘mama‘ (mother) or a ‘bwana‘ (Sir)* situates one’s position in society – with all the dignity attached to it – but also relatively to the interlocutor who directly acknowledges the bond as well as the boundaries by using appropriate kinship terms.
In Nairobi, Swahili kinship terms are rarely used other than with a humorous tone. Bwana has actually passed into Sheng’ (Baana) as a sort of interjection! However, Kenyans do use English-language kinship terms. A well-behaved child will call a woman ‘auntie’ and a man ‘uncle’ even when they are not related in any way. Especially upcountry, a lady in her 20s can easily be addressed as ‘Sister’ or ‘Mum’ which would be the equivalent of ‘Dada‘ or ‘Mama‘ (it is often assumed that, passed a certain age, one must have at least one child!)
Going back to the initial argument, seen with Tanzanian eyes, Kenyans may seem cold and distant in the way they express themselves in Kiswahili. Similarly, Kenyans will consider the ‘formal familiarity’ peppering Tanzanian Kiswahili to be a tad overbearing and odd if not altogether a waste of time.
- Attenuating orders
Let me just say this about Nairobians; they do not burden themselves with cumbersome courtesies and expressions that go along with them. Saying ‘Tafadhali‘ (Please) is already going out of one’s way to request for something. As far as orders are concerned, pretty much anything goes: on the more polite end, we would have ‘niletee‘ (Bring me…), ‘nipe’ (Give me…), ‘nisaidie na‘ (Assist me with…) all the way down to ‘leta kachumbari‘ (Bring salad! – quite rude).
The reason why Tanzanians may appear to border on the obsequious is that they take politeness very seriously. The sesame to asking for anything is ‘naomba‘ (literally, I beg or I pray) associated with the subjunctive tense: a huge contrast to Kenya, where this phrase is taken to mean that one wishes to get something for free! So if we take the previous example, after the mandatory greetings, you would go ‘naomba kachumbari‘ or ‘naomba uniletee kachumbari‘ (literally: I beg you to bring me salad). If you just walked into a restaurant bluntly ordering ‘leta…‘ you would most certainly be met with dumb-founded stares and a pout on the waiter’s mouth.
I have to say that the first time someone in Kenya asked me to come over by saying ‘Kuja‘, I was stuck between showing them my back and putting them in their place with an eloquent 5-minute speech. In the end, I did neither…See, I had learnt that the proper way to call somebody was ‘Njoo‘ while ‘Kuja‘ was quite rude and should be confined to calling your dog for instance. Apparently, not many Kenyans are aware of the nuance so I had to adjust but I have never come around to letting go of ‘njoo‘ myself.
From my observation, all these verbal niceties, essential to maintain smooth relations in Tanzania, tend to irritate Kenyans. Cultural mishaps, they said?
*It is to be noted that ‘Bwana’ or ‘Bwana mkubwa’ has colonial undertones as this is what white settlers used to be addressed as.