Semantics by Linda Murphy Marshall

 

We do not take a trip; A trip takes us.

            -John Steinbeck

 

One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.

-Henry Miller

I was making plans to do a Swahili immersion in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, after working with a tutor stateside for six months. I loved Swahili, its straightforward grammar, the culture surrounding those who spoke it, its importance as one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa. But until now my exposure had been limited to the U.S.— a classroom, textbooks, and daily instruction from a native speaker.

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The U.S. State Department was in charge of the details surrounding trip logistics: setting up flights, local transportation, and locating a family to host my home stay. My contact at the State Department called me pre-trip with some questions: what kind of family did I want to stay with for the home stay, what kind of setting was I looking for, and what specific village did I want to stay in? These matters all seemed secondary to my goal for the trip — language fluency — and my first reaction was frustration. I felt bogged down in all the details surrounding the trip.

What difference does it make, I thought? Surrounding myself with native Swahili speakers in their environment was the point of the home stay; anything else was window dressing. But State Department personnel pinned me down; they needed specifics. Forced to respond, my instinctive reaction was to say, “A middle class family is fine.”

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After arriving in in Tanzania, I tried to be optimistic about leaving behind the comfort of a controlled environment to stay with a local family. My host family lived in a small village, Kinondoni, thirty minutes outside of Dar Es Salaam. For my visit with them I carried only a small canvas bag with toiletries, a change of clothing, and some family photographs I would share with the family, to give them a better idea of who I was. I carried no cell phone or computer with me.

It dawned on me passing ramshackle homes on my way to Kinondoni — surely they couldn’t be considered “middle class” dwellings, could they? This isn’t what I’d meant when I’d used the term with my State Department contacts. Hadn’t I been clear? What had I gotten myself into? I’d just said the word “middle class” and expected it to translate perfectly from my western world into this African world, even though nothing I’d experienced thus far in my travels fit into this definition.

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After a thirty-minute drive, I arrived in Kinondoni Village. It was a palette of various shades of earth tones: brown dirt roads, some huts with thatched roofs, some one-story off-white concrete dwellings, goats grazing on sparse tufts of dying grass, local people milling about. It reminded me of the raffia cloths I’d seen elsewhere in eastern Africa, beautifully woven textured tapestries using varying shades of brown, beige and black textiles.

Pulling up to a small, bare-bones one-story concrete structure, a building surrounded by homes that were even more modest, my heart sank. No. I can’t stay here. I can’t do this. Panic set in. I don’t know these people. I have no way to escape if I need to. Very few people even know where I am, except for this driver, who seems eager to be rid of me.

I was greeted by my host, Maliamacho, his wife, Grace, and their five children, all of whom introduced themselves, the girls curtsying. They seemed happy to see me, despite the desperate look I must have been wearing.

Everyone in the family was dressed in his or her Sunday best, but Maliamacho stood out with his dapper suit coat, tie and hat, looking like the dignified and confident patriarch that he was, more western in appearance than his wife or the children. Grace and the two older female children were wearing the traditional kanga, the local dress I had seen when walking around Dar Es Salaam.

After overcoming their shyness, the children were curious about me, never having seen a Caucasian in person before, despite living so close to Dar Es Salaam. They touched my skin and hair, not sure what to make of me, as though in the presence of a strange creature, and then the questions began. “Habari, mama?” they repeated, giggling again when they heard my accented Swahili. “How are you, mama?” “What is your name?” “Where are your children?” “Where is your husband?” “What is your house like?” “How old are you?” “Do you have pets?”

My home away from home was a one-story building and had been constructed of large, whitewashed cinder block walls and bare, cement floors the color of steeped tea. I learned later that this fact alone placed the family in the middle class; poor families had dirt floors and no man-made structure, or a single room, or only a hut. The cement blocks were in the interior as well as on the outside and, except for the furniture, you could have turned the house inside out and not changed its appearance appreciably.

The home had a living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms, the bedrooms with no furniture except a double bed in the master bedroom, and a twin bed in the other. There was no heat, no air conditioning, no indoor plumbing or running water, and no telephone, although cell phones were slowly appearing on the continent, leapfrogging over landline technology. The only sign of modernity was electricity.

After settling in, I helped the women prepare the main meal, chopping greens, cutting up a cassava melon and a coconut, and cooking the traditional ugali. They used rudimentary implements in the kitchen, such as a a tiny Coleman stove, and mortar and pestle for grinding ingredients, reminding me of my days back in high school chemistry.

In honor of my arrival that day, the family slaughtered a goat (which I had initially mistaken for their family pet), cooking it over a spit and then using it in a savory stew we would eat that night. Fortunately, I was spared witnessing the killing of the goat. I later learned that more goat is eaten worldwide than any other meat; I’m sure this is due to its popularity in Africa. Regardless of personal preferences, I ate everything I was served; to refuse would have been the height of rudeness.

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After our meal — which took three hours to prepare — and a visit to a local music festival in the village, I wished everyone goodnight, thanking them for their hospitality, ready to go to bed, when Maliamacho announced I had to bathe before retiring.

“Mama Alex,” he said, beckoning me. Women of childbearing ages and older are referred to by using their oldest son’s first name, tacked on to “Mama.” If a woman does not have male children, the female child’s name is used, or a nephew’s name, if the woman has no children.

“Do you prefer hot or cold water for your evening bath?” Maliamacho continued, asking me point-blank, brooking no opposition. “I think I’ll wait till tomorrow,” I suggested, not eager to meet up with the thousands of insects I feared were lurking in the dark. My words were in vain; this was not a custom to be trifled with. And then, in what was to be one of many mistakes, in reply to his question, I said, “hot water.”

I realized too late, that this meant the women of the house had to haul pails of water in gigantic plastic containers from the village’s communal well and heat them one by one over the portable camp stove, all for my “hot” bath. There was no spigot marked with an “H” from which hot water would magically flow. This lengthened the women’s day and their workload, not to mention postponing their own bedtimes.

There was one stall outside the home in which to bathe, with a few remnants of soap in the corner, probably gathered for my exclusive benefit, and the stall was located in their postage-stamp, grassless yard. A second stall was right next to it: the outhouse. Both stalls were open at the top, and I quickly bathed, using the small plastic tub filled with now-lukewarm water they had given me, avoiding the bats swooping dangerously close to my head. I was busy in my attempts to avoid the agile water bugs dancing at my bare feet. Onlookers might have thought I was doing a version of the Irish jig.

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After cleaning up, I was led to the home’s second bedroom, a small room with a single bed for furniture. It was probably part of a child’s bedroom set in another place and time, designed for someone with a much shorter frame than mine. Not eager to have my arms or legs draped over the sides or ends of the bed, I spent the night in the fetal position.

Mosquito netting was draped over the bed like a tent and served as an all-night trampoline for the hundreds of giant cockroaches ricocheting off of it, their weight briefly denting the tent once or twice as they attempted to penetrate it. They aggressively dive-bombed the netting, then angrily buzzed before pinging onto the floor.

The insects’ tiny antennae poked through the gaps in the netting, close to brushing against my skin. Those in flight hit the floor with a soft thud, then skittered around willy-nilly like shiny black bump ’em cars at a carnival. The Sisyphean process was then repeated and they took flight, resuming their onslaught of the netting. I lay there, wide awake, praying for dawn to come, ecstatic when I heard the first roosters crow outside.

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After returning home from Tanzania, I often reflected on my experience and the brief time I spent with Maliamacho and his family, and how generous everyone was. It was a time of intense learning and unlearning, of absorbing and discarding.

Not only did my Swahili improve, the family also inspired me with their spirit, their work ethic, and their appreciation for what they had in life, not to mention their generosity in sharing all of it with me. They probably viewed me as an alien, spoiled, different from them in every conceivable way, yet they never made me feel unwelcome.

Another life lesson I learned dealt with semantics. From my vantage point, this family’s lifestyle bore little resemblance to “middle class.” The lack of basic amenities such as indoor plumbing, refrigerator and stove, not to mention their cramped sleeping quarters, would have placed them at the poverty level back in the U.S. In short, it was a life far removed from what Americans would term middle class. In their eyes, however, they were a proud, dignified, middle class family, pillars of their community.

They were equally convinced that my life back home was anything but middle class. They were certain it was reflected in the opulence they saw on old “Dallas” reruns they watched on their battered TV. Despite my protestations that I did not live in such luxury, that I was a member of the middle class, they never believed me, positive I lived on an estate as grand as “South Fork.”

When I initially asked to stay with a middle class family, I stripped the words of their cultural significance, viewed them not through the lens of the world I was entering, but through the lens of my own limited experiences. The words represented an abstract, unchanging reality. Maybe, then, it was an example of cognitive dissonance, of holding two contradictory ideas at the same time, and still being able to function. Maliamacho’s family showed me that words alone don’t capture who we are, how we live, and how we relate to each other. This was the most important language lesson they taught me, and one I had not anticipated learning.

BIO: Linda Murphy Marshall is a professional multi-linguist and writer with a Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literature, a Master’s in Spanish, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has traveled throughout Africa in her work for the U.S. government as a specialist in African languages: during a war, a coup, following the terrorist bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania, and in support of an official Presidential visit, as well as numerous other African trips. She also co-authored a book on the South African “click” language, isiXhosa.