Unasema Kiingereza? (Do you speak English?)

One of the biggest challenges of working abroad is the disturbing “language barrier”. How can we work together if we do not share a common language? This kind of situation may often lead to a dead end project. What a relief, could one be tempted to think, that English is the “official” language of Kenya! You can therefore communicate in English with almost anyone… which is true for the big cities.

The rural areas are somewhat of a greater challenge for travellers. Indeed, in the villages where we work, we daily meet people that speak only Kikuyu and Kiswahili, and then again… It is not seldom that we have to interact with someone that understands but his native language, his “tribal language” (the Kikuyu tribe is the major ethnic group in this area); although we see more and more young people that went to school, where they were taught the basics of English, if not a better English than many Quebec citizens (believe me, I know first hand). Nonetheless, no matter what their language qualifications are, farmers always greet us with a warm “Karibu” (“Welcome”) and a big smile.

Mastering a language with all its subtleties requires a few years of sustained practice. And for the research study we are working on, we absolutely need to get every detail from the speech of the farmers we poll, so our data can be as accurate as possible. Having Priscilla (our translator) working with us is therefore essential. However, we must not forget that even the best translator sometimes acts as a filter, leaving out what he considers lacking in pertinence, and we might miss a detail from the speech or a hesitation in the tone of the person we are adressing. That filter can sometimes keep us from adapting to the people we are speaking to. Fortunately, Shepelo manages most of the time to communicate with the farmers in Kiswahili – sometimes with a brief intervention in Kikuyu from Godfrey, our driver – and makes sure that they fully understand the question or the recommandations.

Kenyans are pleased to hear a stranger speak their language. Therefore, we are immediately treated with consideration when we stammer a few Kiswahili words. Adults laugh with us at our slow and often awkward pronunciation. As for the children, when I introduce myself with a complete Kiswahili sentence, they open wide eyes in surprise, blush as they shyly say their names or run to an andult to show him the feat of a stranger who knows how to link subject, verb, and object in a language other than English. And when a group of kids standing together would like to share a secret comment, they start whispering in Kikuyu, forgetting that even if they did speak loudly, I would not be able to understant them.

Some kids address us directly with a “How are you” in falsly sharp voices. They propably percieve a nasal accent in stangers’speeches, so they think that modifying their voices is the proper way to speak to us… or they simply take a mischievous pleasure in talking to wazungu this way (which is most likely).

The other day, a woman criticized me for not speaking Kiswahili. “You must!” she declared. I answered that both of us understood three languages : Kikuyu, Kiswahili and English for her, French, Romanian and English for me; perhaps we could agree on English to communicate. She laughed heartily and nodded, seeing that I was not necessarily a fool.

In order to interact more with this people that welcomes me, I started learning a few words in Kiswahili – more than “hello”, “thank you” and “welcome”. Farmers Helping Farmers lent us a phrase book for Kiswahili to help us with communicating… and I carry mine with me religiously every day. The first time that Kamau (our collegue in Wakulima Dairy Ltd.) saw me read some grammar rules, he exclaimed with an obvious enthousiasm, “You’re learning Kiswahili!” Well, yes; at that moment I knew how to count up to four. One week later, Kamau asked me if I had finished the book. I told him to be realistic; such an exploit was not humanly possible. Still, I have made progress. I can now understand a tiny bit of the conversation between Shepelo and the farmers (especially when they use some English words like “mastitis”), I can say if the milk tested with the CMT is good, I can wish “Good sleep!” to Francis when he leaves in the evening… and I can count up to 29, which is enough for when the children tell me how old they are.

And if where words fail, we can still count on hands, looks and facial expressions. The joy that shows on the faces of the people I speak to, when I try everything I can to communicate – waving my hands about while I jabber – is well worth the difficulties we sometimes experience in understanding each other, and we can never stop smiling.


Geneviève C. L.