Imagine an African bush scene with a thin, sandy trail snaking though it. Now, you hear the creaks of two rickety bicycles, and two wazungu (white people) enter into the scene. They are repeatedly mispronouncing random phrases in Kiswahili under their breath as they ride, “Una fa—n-y-a nini? Una fanya nini. U-na fa-n-ya n-in-i. Una toca wap-e, I mean, wapi!” The two crazy wazungu are Ross and I, and we are making our daily trek into the village to see our new friends who help us with language learning.
Because language is a human invention and language learning is a social process, we have been taught to find a series of friends to practice language with every day. We usually visit these people in an orderly progression as we make our way through the village, so it is called a “language route.” Every day, Ross and I memorize some kind of series or monologue to deliver to our friends. For example, yesterday, Heather memorized how to say, “Hi, how are you? How is your family? How has your afternoon been? (Long greetings are customary in African cultures.) My name is Heather. I am a student of Kiswahili. What are you doing? Where are you from? How many children do you have? Ok, good to see you. I will see you tomorrow, God willing.” Ross memorized a speech about where he is from, how many children were in his family, what his father did for a living, what he studied in college (Taurat, Zabur, and Injil) and why he is in Tanzania.
At first, this process was very awkward because we knew no one in the village, and we were fumbling and stuttering random greetings to strangers. However, we have now been at language school for about a week-and-a-half, and people are beginning to become interested. Bongo, the mzee who greets us from behind the little window of his crowded duka hangs on every word about Ross’ family. His wife, Asha, calls her little girl from across the street and presents her with pride when we ask about her family.
Two days ago, Rehema, the lady who watches our bikes when we go into Tonga, asked if we would meet her husband. This was a special request because for the past week, he has been completing our sentences and chuckling at our stumbling efforts at conversation with Rehema from inside the house, behind a darkened screen window. Mwafifu, Rehema’s husband, emerged from behind the screen, and we greeted him ceremoniously with a “Shikamoo, Mzee” (a special greeting for elders), and he presented us with a ripe papaya. When he did this, we said, “Mungu mu mwema” (God is so good).
There is a group of men who lounge on a house porch along our route who returned Ross’ monologue a few days ago with the broken English statement, “We love it. Every time [you come].” Last night, one of the lounging men named Sole invited Ross and I to a small table on the other side of the road where his wife, Taifa, served concentrated, steaming coffee in little cups the size of espresso thimbles. My cup was cracked down the middle and was glued back together, so the coffee leaked steadily out of the bottom, and I had to drink mine quickly. The little cup was white with a small red chicken on the inner lip. After pouring the coffee, to my delight, Taifa placed a little piece of sweet, peanut candy on a small plastic plate for me to eat with the coffee. It tasted like peanuts and brown sugar, and it was called cashata. After a semi-awkward conversation which exhausted every Kiswahili phrase we have come to know and involved some long pauses of silence, we decided to pay. Ross put a 500 TZ shilling note (small sum) in Taifa’s hand. She held it for a moment, but Sole said something to her in Kiswahili, and she handed it back. Something inside of me surged. This had been a meeting of friends and not for money. It had been a gift.
Although I can say less in Kiswahili than a three year-old, I am increasingly convinced that what we learned in our missions training is true: language learning is a ministry. However, now, through experience, I know the more precise truth that language learning is not just a ministry to them, it is a ministry to us.