Thursday, 16 July 2009

Mambo Jambo

I have written before about visitors to Kenya speaking Swahili, and as I continue to visit, I learn more about what gives a mzungu street credibility. And it depends on where you are.

I spend most of my time in Kisii, which is situated in SW Kenya. Although it is quite a big town, it is off the regular tourist track and white people are few and far between.

It is rare to be greeted with "Jambo" in Kisii. Usually, you would be greeted with "Habari?" which means, "How are you?", to which the reply is "Mzuri" - "Fine" or "Mzuri sana" - "Very fine". Of course, if you ask a Kenyan, "Habari?", you could get the answer, "Very OK."

Youngsters love sheng, a sort of slang mixture of Swahili, English and whatever their tribal language might be. So, I usually greet younger people with "Mambo" - "What's up?" This surprises most people as I am white and am speaking a "language" that is normally reserved for Kenyans. The reply is usually "Poa" (Cool) or "Safi" (clean).

Even the youngest of children in provincial Kenya speak some sheng.

On the Coast, where there are far more whites, either tourists or residents, Jambo is the usual greeting, to which the reply is also Jambo. The same seems to goes for Nairobi.

But, as I spend most of my time in Kenya in the Kisii district, wherever I am, I greet people with "Habari?" or "Mambo".

It certainly gives a mzungu some credibility when they speak any Swahili, but to use a greeting other than Jambo earns them a couple of extra points.

There are a few peculiarities you may come across in Kenya. A cigarette is a stick, and the smoker may "drink" it.

I mentioned "Very OK". This is a phrase that I find myself using now, even in the UK. It raises a few eyebrows over here.

I have also mentioned before the use of "Sorry". People will say sorry if you have a mishap, even if they are not the cause. It is not an apology, but showing empathy for your discomfort. It takes a little getting used to.

Kenyan English is a wonderful language, but don't translate it literally into UK English - it doesn't always work!

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Things That Go Bump In The Night In Kenya

One of the major disadvantages of living in a house with a corrugated steel roof is the noise when something lands on said roof. Even with a false ceiling, the noise of a bird landing on the roof can be heard.

Especially at night.

At dusk, standing outside, bats can be seen flitting around. These aren't the cute little things one sees in the South of England, these are like raptors, enormous things!

And they roost in trees, where they return, carrying their staple diet, fruit - because they are probably fruit bats. Now, there are a lot of mango trees around in Kenya, so these bats come home with a mango, eat the flesh and drop the stone.

I am sure that most readers have seen the stone of a mango, it is big, and when one is dropped onto a corrugated steel roof, it makes rather a lot of noise. There is the initial clang as it lands, but

then a sort of grating slide as it slips off the roof towards the gutter.

The first time I was subjected to this, i jumped out of bed and grabbed the panga (machete) standing in the corner of the room. I was convinced the house was being broken into (this was soon after the post-election violence of 2008). As the second stone hit the roof, I realised what it probably was, and calmed down and eventually got back to sleep.


On my most recent visit to Kisii, the area suffered an earth tremor. I have mentioned this in an earlier post. I was instantly awakened when the house started to vibrate. The noise was terrifying, and realising what was going on, my mind drew a mental picture of where the house was situated.

We were in the lowest of three rows of little bungalows on the side of a steep side of a valley with a river at the bottom.

My next vision was of the hillside collapsing as we had had torrential rain for the last few days.

The rumbling, grinding vibrations went on for about 20 or 30 seconds, although it seemed a lot more at the time.

I lay there, waiting for an after-shock, or whatever happens in these situations, but none occurred.

It was terrifying, and this was just a little tremor, there was no structural damage. Things didn't even fall of shelves. In fact, when i got up in the morning, I wondered if i had dreamt it.

But I hadn't. Vincent, my host talked about it. But he said that in his 28 years in Kisii, there had never been a similar incident as far as he could remember.

And it was the last one that occurred while I was there. This was a very minor tremor and it got me thinking of the people who live in areas prone to major earthquakes. If I was scared by a minor tremor, what do these people feel?

Thinking about it, Kisii, is not that far from the Great Rift Valley, described as the area where the continent of Africa is ripping itself apart. This is evident when you are in the valley. There are volcanoes running the length of it. They are extinct, or at least dormant and most are now lakes, supporting an abundance of wildlife.

Although I have driven past it several times, I still get a thrill when I pass Suswa or Oldoinyo Nyukie, an impressive conical volcano on the road between Nairobi and Narok.


Of course, it is not only fruit bats that drop things on the roof.

Where I was staying on the coast, there was a mango tree overhanging the house and from time to time, a fruit would fall, especially if the ocean breeze was a little stronger than usual. There were also a lot of coconut palms, well laden with fruit, but luckily, it wasn't the season for them to drop.