When I worked in East Africa, I learned swahili. I wasn’t fluent, but knew enough to negotiate a taxi cab fair, or ask for consular assistance when I was arrested for stopping my bike in a “No stopping your bike” zone. I knew how to order beer, pizza and malaria tests.
I knew how to ask ‘how are you doing’ at least fifteen ways. In Zanzibar, it usually took me a half an hour to say ‘good morning’ to the person selling my breakfast samosa. I was told that I had a very good accent- not just for a mzungu, but for a Tanzanian. I managed to become a Zanzibari resident and my Canadian passport was appropriately stamped to reflect my dual status.
When Disney’s the Lion King was released, I had a number of critiques of the movie’s portrayal of life on the grasslands of East Africa. First, the protagonist was a lion cub named Simba. Simba in swahili is lion. You can see how creatively this lacked imagination, and practically would cause a great deal of confusion to the rest of the members of the pride.
My second major critique was the catchy tune ‘Hakuna matata.’ Everyone everywhere whistled this African philosophy. Translated it means ‘no problem.’ There is a problem however, no one in East Africa says this. The correct phrase is ‘Humna matatizo,’ which means ‘there are no problems/concerns/worries.’ I’m sure it doesn’t bother the average person out there, but for those of us Swahili grammar-philes this is like nails on a chalk board.
I have forgotten most of my swahili. Recently, however I did say “Haraka haraka haina baraka,” to my co-pilot. He was flying an approach to a busy airport and was getting uncomfortable close to a small airplane that was landing ahead of us. Understandably, he looked at me like I was speaking in Tongues.
‘Hurry hurry has no blessings,’ I clarified. “Slow down.” He did, and I managed not to make the evening news.
I recently returned from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, where lions eat ‘lion food’ and snakes eat ‘snake food.’ It is a place where the circle of life has been sterilized. Naked mole rats are ‘cute’ and cat-eating frogs are ‘neat’.
Surprisingly, my favorite part of the Disney experience was Africa. They managed to cram all those countries onto one street and remove all the negative things that appear on the evening news.
My first experience of Africa was formed while I huddled under a blanket on the floor of a Nairobi taxi cab while Kenyan students clashed with riot police as they tried to overthrow a thirty year military dictatorship. To be honest, my first experience of Africa was the goat dinner I had with the taxi cab driver I met at the Nairobi airport when I arrived earlier that morning. That taxi cab driver kept me safe from looters, tear gas and police. The next day we went for breakfast.
My daughter’s first experience of Africa was being swallowed by a Nile crocodile.
Actually, her first experience of Africa was playing Bao with a nice lady from Botswana. The lady spent time teaching my daughter the strategies of this traditional game. She was patient and kind and funny. She let my daughter win. They played together for twenty minutes- and in a Disney amusement park twenty minutes is forever. I guess that is the magic of Disney.