Getting to grips with our languages

| March 24, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Tessa Dowling

Tessa Dowling, a senior lecturer in the African languages section, School of Languages and Literatures at the University of Cape Town, took a break from her regular column in Independent Education last year. In this edition, she once again explores the richness of African life and languages.

I lived in a rural Eastern Cape village for a month at the end of last year, and shared a bed with a little girl who was so bright she learnt how to use my iPad (which she called a ‘highpad’) and laptop in one hour. She had never seen a computer before. I loved the way she would crawl into bed with me, fully clothed, run her elegant little finger across the screen and click and drag, muttering at the computer game, “Hayi, PEA SHOOTER, andikufuni!” (No, pea shooter, I don’t want you!)

I was there to click too, but in a different way – and sometimes, just sometimes, it was a drag. Like being forced to capture and carry our lost piglet home. (He had found his way back to his mother, who hung out in a distant homestead.) I had no idea how tragic a pig could sound: ibikhala (he was crying out). I heard his shuddering, wet, snuffling sobs coming from the bag and my heart broke. The villagers watched on with amused enjoyment as the pig’s little trotter kicked my midriff through a hole in the bag.

Or when I had to wait three hours for a taxi and the driver wouldn’t move because he needed to cram a twelfth person into the back of his bakkie. We were already sitting on top of each other and some of us were not sober. I heard myself mutter and curse in English, and people laughed and said: “Whu-ah, lo mlungu uqumbile, shem!” (Wow, this whitey is angry, shame!)

But most of the time being there made me want to speak Xhosa and sing it, and sigh it, and whisper it conspiratorially to my landlady as she rolled her eyes and punched her head to stop it itching – “Whu ah sana! Uyandihlekisa seriyas!” (Shu babe! You make me laugh, seriously!) She was eager for gossip and hilarity and she liked my take on the men of the village.

Apart from the joy of gossiping, when you see and hear people speaking an African language every day, and you don’t hear a word of English from anyone, and even the dog cocks its head in confusion when you say “Sit!” in English and barks a friendly quizzical Xhosa bark, “Hawu, hawu?”, you start to get its rhythm, its poetry, its humour, its randomness.

Like the languid young woman who asked me whether I had seen a green lollipop (isitoki esiluhlaza) anywhere on the winding hill we were ascending. I said no, I hadn’t, and started looking for it hopelessly amongst the cow dung. She didn’t stop me, but continued up the path, still dreaming of her lost lollipop, sighing, “Eish, siyandistresa esaa stoki” (Hey, that lollipop is stressing me).

When an electric storm rolled into our hut, my fear was Xhosa fear – “Yhu! Yhu!!!! – Andiyikholelwa!!” (Sjoe, sjoe!! I don’t believe it!!), when we went to an umqombothi (traditional Xhosa beer) party, I was tipsy in a Xhosa kind of way, and when a young man offered to marry me (despite my wrinkled neck the children had laughed about – “intamo yakho ishwabene!”), I rejected him with Xhosa archness and amused tolerance. He kissed my hand.

I liked the way we would sit in our little hut and watch SA’s Got Talent on TV with the sound off and a Xhosa religious programme playing on the radio. We beat hymnbooks and we sang loudly that famous Xhosa hymn on human sinfulness “Wakrazulwa ngenxa yam” (You were torn apart because of me), all the while watching half-clad women on the TV screen gyrate and sing noiselessly through their lipstick-slashed mouths.

Children carrying groceries in a wheelbarrow shouting “Siyeza” (We are coming), women in frilly aprons dancing and demanding of the ancestors, “Nililela ntoni zinyanyana? Zonke izinto ndizenzile!” (What are you crying for, ancestors? I have done everything!), a little girl brushing my hair with a tiny doll’s hairbrush, a drunken man ploughing our field but falling into the furrows as he did so… these were a few of my favourite things! I felt as though I was in a musical full of charming characters and crazy happenings… difficult to translate into English, but really quite profound in Xhosa.

Category: Autumn 2015

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