During my first week at Yale, someone asked my Tanzanian friend if she lived with lions in her backyard. Three days ago, I might have been closer to this stereotype than I had ever been before. Spending two nights at Kruger National Park, Shishangeni lodge, was truly an amazing experience. As we came back to Eswatini, I remember reading a poster in Siswati (or at least trying to) at the port of entry. I was a little bit too ecstatic when I could decipher the meaning of half the phrase without having to read the English translation.
Now, before you get too excited thinking I learnt Siswati in about two weeks, I would like to inform you that I only know five Siswati words off the top of my head. Three that are common greeting phrases I’ve grown to learn, and two are because of how similar they are to Swahili or Kikúyú (my native Bantu language). These are: ‘Imbuti’ in Siswati which is ‘Mbuzi’ in Swahili and ‘Mbúthí’ in Kikúyú meaning goat. ‘Ngúkú’ which is in both Siswati and Kikúyú and ‘Kuku’ in Swahili meaning chicken. I knew these words in Siswati thanks to a sweet girl I met in the Kashoba community, Christine.
During the time I’ve spent in South Africa and Eswatini, my interest in languages has certainly peaked. I have begun to be more aware about the origin of languages as well as their differences, similarities and purpose in each society.
The first thing I noticed was when a South African would start speaking to me in a native language and my automatic response would be that I didn’t understand the language yet at the back of my mind I could pick out some words that sounded incredibly similar to Swahili. For example, ‘mlango’ in Swahili and ‘umnyango’ in Zulu meaning door. These similarities trace back to a large language group that transcends African borders: Bantu. The Bantu originated from Central Africa before migrating to different parts of the continent between 3000 to 2000 years ago. Slowly, I started to challenge myself by reading signs in the native language or listen to others speak to see how much I could possibly pick out and understand. I’ve simply been at awe at how much has remained partly similar despite thousands of years.
Even what was more interesting was the fact that South Africa has 11 national languages. Citizens can speak at least 3 native languages despite their differences in culture and ethnicity. I was amazed at how much South Africans embraced their diversity and used it to promote unity. This was especially surprising having grown up in a country divided along politicized ethnic lines. It was engrained in me for years that inter-ethnic relations were bound to be problematic. To see another diverse country use similar circumstances as a basis for unity instead is refreshing.
I can certainly say that in the past couple of weeks, I’ve began to appreciate how much diversity can play different roles in the progress of a society. More importantly, my understanding of how intersectional African languages with similar origins can be has grown.