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WHAT WITH Rosetta Stone© and related foreign-language learning methodologies, there are multiple paths to Swahili. However, for those into Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, Kenya’s Muthaiga Country Club and the whole Happy Valley set, Lt. Col. F. H. Le Breton offered good advice back in 1936. His book Up-Country Swahili Exercises still has its uses today.
“At the end of the first World War,” Le Breton writes, “the Author decided to retire from the army and to become a Soldier Settler in Kenya.” He bought a recommended book, Bishop Steere’s Swahili Exercises. However, after studying it thoroughly, he found this was all Coastal Swahili, utterly useless on an up-country farm.
“What the…!” Le Breton cried (and wrote). “Why on earth doesn’t someone write a book of the type of Swahili that they will understand?”
Le Breton says the difference between Up-Country Swahili and its Coastal counterpart lies in the extreme complexity of the latter. For instance, Coastal Swahili nouns are rigidly divided into many classes, with each affecting its own set of plurals, pronouns and adjectives.
Not that Up-Country Swahili is a walk in the Muthaiga. Le Breton manages to pack a great deal in a mere 47 pages of lessons, accompanied by another 49 pages of exercise answers, Swahili-English and English-Swahili vocabularies.
Early on, it’s clear this isn’t your La plume de ma tante sort of primer. From page 15: Mwenzi wa mwalimu mulevi (the companion of the teacher is a drunkard).
M-Class nouns, those beginning with an “m,” often denote living beings. And, by the way, a word starting with an “m” followed by a consonant, mwenzi, for example, is pronounced with an almost non-existent u sound, umwenzi.
Unlike in English, modifiers come afterward, not before: Mpishi hii mvivu sana. Mpishi = cook, hii = this; mvivu = lazy, sana = very.
Let’s hope that cook’s errant ways improve. In less than two pages, we’re introduced to our first verb, kupiga, to beat, with piga its root word.
Nitapiga = I shall beat; nimepiga = I have beaten.
By page 19, cook is evidently working off his frustrations with Mpishi anapiga mchawi (the cook is beating the witchdoctor). Mchawi, by the way, identifies a bad witchdoctor; mganga is a good witchdoctor, a diviner.
And, on the same page, Ninapiga mulevi na miti (I am hitting the drunkard with a stick). It is not recorded what his companion, the teacher, thinks of this.
Other exercises at this stage include Mzee huyu mimi tumepiga njugu na rungu (This old man and I have beaten the ground-nuts with clubs); and Mzee na mimi tulipiga kelele sana (The old man and I are making a great noise).
Typical Happy Valley action, it seems, and it’s only page 19.
Some of Swahili is familiar to those remembering Tarzan flicks. Jambo, bwana (How do you do, sir, master or European man). Other words are new: Sumile! (Make way!)
Like other languages, Swahili readily borrows foreign words. Memsaab = madam, European lady. It’s originally Hindustani (all true Swahili words end in vowels). Many English words make their way into Up-Country Swahili, though not without unique renderings. Jami might be spread on a biskoti. Your sokisi (socks) may be in the kábadi (cupboard).
Notes Le Breton, after diligently working through Up-Country Swahili Exercises the conscientious student “will speak better Swahili than the average settler of many years standing.”
And, I might add, learn a lot by implication about Happy Valley culture. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014