(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.

Tuesday update #2: isiZulu newspaper Isolezwe, a South African success story

Launched in 2002 in its paper edition and in 2004 online, Isolezwe is a leading South African daily newspaper in isiZulu. The site is targeting both isiZulu speakers in search of news in their language (potentially over 11 million people) and learners of the language seeking reading material.

Known for using a more popular form of isiZulu than its competitor Ilanga, Isolezwe is meant to appeal to the Zulu speakers of today who live in an increasingly urbanised, modern environment. Here is former editor Thulani Mbatha’s take on his readership:

Our readers have always known they were Zulu, we’ve just managed to cater for the modernising Zulu. Someone who may go back home to the rural areas to slaughter a cow to the amadlozi [ancestors], but is as equally comfortable taking his family out for dinner and a movie in a shopping mall.

The isiZulu newspaper is a publishing phenomenon in South Africa, registering no less than 112 648 single-copy sales in the second quarter of 2012 and showing very promising growth. Isolezwe’s success is attributed to its tabloid format distilling a heady mix of entertainment, local football, but also issues related to religious belief, feel-good success stories and … very little politics!

The clout of the newspaper is such that stories penned by Isolezwe music chronicler Charles Khuzwayo are said to have contributed to the reconciliation of two maskandi artists who were embroiled in a conflict. In October this year, Khuzwayo won the Best Journalist award in the print category at the South African Traditional Music Awards (SATMAs).

All this augurs well for the development and the spread of isiZulu which is the mother tongue of 22.7 % of the South African population according to the 2011 census (pdf). But what of the other eight official indigenous languages of South Africa? The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) offers news and various programs in all official languages, with radio stations being the most dynamic in promoting even minority, non official languages.

However, English dominates almost all spheres of communication, despite being spoken natively by only 8 % of South Africans. According to The Economist:

Not only is [English] the medium of business, finance, science and the internet, but also of government, education, broadcasting, the press, advertising, street signs, consumer products and the music industry. For such things Afrikaans is also occasionally used, especially in the Western Cape province, but almost never an African tongue. The country’s Zulu-speaking president, Jacob Zuma, makes all his speeches in English. Parliamentary debates are in English. Even the instructions on bottles of prescription drugs come only in English or Afrikaans.

In a South Africa witnessing the decline of its African languages, Isolezwe’s popularity is a sign that there is still a strong potential for isiZulu media.

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We conclude this second Tuesday update in music, with late maskandi artist Bhekumuzi Luthuli :


More on South Africa’s languages on BBC Radio 4: Our language in your hands with anthropologist and linguist Dr Mark Turin