(South) African languages in Ekow Duker’s novel ‘White wahala’

The title of Ekow Duker‘s novel grabbed my attention : the plot is set in South Africa, but could there be a link to Nigeria somehow ? On Zukiswa Wanner’s recommendation, I read the book and found several other points of interest related to African langages in White wahala.

Wahala : the word that travelled

My curiosity wasn’t really satisfied as to the origin of the title. Or rather, I was left to my own imaginary devices to find out how the term got to Constance’s lips. Wahala is a word meaning ‘trouble’ or ‘problem’ in Yoruba – and I was told by my lecturer that it’s a loan word from Hausa. I’ve heard it used in Pidgin Nigerian English as well so one could safely say it’s a nigerian word.

The first occurrence of the word in ‘White wahala’ – other than in the title – is found in chapter 26 :

‘I am going now, madam,’ said Constance nervously. She edged towards the door. This was white-man wahala and had nothing to do with her. The Zambian gardener, Elisha, had taught her that word. She rolled it on her tongue, relishing the way it stumbled about in her mouth like a half-sucked sweet. She even said it out loud, ‘White wahala‘.

‘What did you say?’ Agatha gave Constance a sharp look. ‘I told you never to mutter in Zulu when you’re in this house’

‘I’m sorry,’ Constance said, with not quite enough deference. (emphasis mine)

And how did the Zambian gardener Elisha come across this word then? The answer isn’t provided in the novel but I’ll offer some hypotheses : Elisha watches a staple of Nollywood movies and ended up adopting the word. Or maybe he used to have Nigerian neighbours, whether in Johannesburg or in his hometown in Zambia. Who knows, what if Elisha were very well-travelled and multilingual ? He might have been to Nigeria before moving to South Africa.
Well, I probably need to ask Ekow Duker himself…

Edit: I did ask and here is what the author had to say:

Zulu and Sesotho, familiarity and struggle

Ekow Duker’s writing is nothing like the weaved bilingual prose of Junot Diaz, but langage issues are ever lurking in the background, as you can tell from the quoted passage above.

In the few instances where it is mentioned, Zulu is charged with emotional undertones: it is the langage people use to get close to someone, to express familiarity. When the plumber (chap 32) comes to beg Cash Tshabalala to lend him money, it is Zulu he uses to appeal to the loan shark to respect his privacy and to not have him expose his money woes in front of Cash’s white girlfriend. It’s interesting to note that in two instances where a character does not understand an utterance and feels left out, they wrongly assume the langage to be Zulu (Agatha in chapter 26 and a prison guard in chapter 27 who mistakes Sesotho for Zulu).

Yet, despite the language being mentioned in several places, there is only one sentence in Zulu in the dialogues (Uya ngidinisa :she annoys me, she makes me tired). It is pronounced by Solly, Agatha Nicholson’s lawyer, to complain about his rich client’s attitude and create an atmosphere of familiarity with the hospital receptionist. But Agatha knows enough Zulu to get offended by this !

Hawu ! A ubiquitous interjections

I was bit quick in saying there was only one Zulu sentence in the whole novel. As a matter of fact, the Zulu interjection Hawu ! Is used so frequently that I had to look it up.

Isizulu.net translates it as ‘oh my, eish, wow, good heavens’. According to White Zulu, depending on the tone pattern (falling or rising, to put it simply), hawu! can express pained surprise/strong disapproval or joyful surprise.

I found examples of both types in the novel, which you have to understand from context :

Joyful surprise :

‘Comrades !’ roared Elvis. ‘Your oppressor is on his knees!’

‘Hawu! Hawu! Hawu!’ chorused the crowd. (chap 22)

Strong disapproval :

Elisha snorted in disgust. ‘Hawu! That one? She is like a snake that suns itself on top of a wall at midday’ (chap 35)

Anyone familliar with the linguistic landscape of South Africa? Drop your insights below!

P.S. I read the novel in Kindle format so I can’t provide page numbers but each chapter is not very long. You should be able to find the relevant passages easily on your own copy.

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