Push a Lizard into the Grass
Adventures in a Language I Can't Speak
The first thing I learned to say in Luganda was Oliotya (o-lee-OH-tee-a). This means "How are you?" The second thing I learned to say was the reply: Bulungi (buh-lunj-ee). "Good." (Bulungi sounds a lot like mulungi, which means beautiful. How many times have I answered a polite inquiry about my health by saying that I am beautiful?)
I've been traveling to Uganda for several years, and as a nurse I've spent most of my time helping at a medical clinic in a rural farming village in the southwest part of the country, near Lake Victoria and the border of Tanzania. Most people here are members of the Buganda tribe, the largest tribe in Uganda and, for untold years, the most powerful kingdom in the region. And I am always happy to be here — I am happy here. Making me go to Uganda would be, for me, Kusindika munnya mu ssubi — "to push a lizard into the grass." That is, to make me do something that I want to do anyway.
Sallie Tisdale has written essays for The New Yorker, Harper's, Conjunctions, Vogue, and many other publications, and is the author of seven books. The most recent is Women of the Way. Her website is www.sallietisdale.com.
I've tried for years to learn more than a few sentences. Luganda, a Bantu language, is considered difficult to learn. Because it’s tonal, pitch consistency is crucial. My meager efforts range from mute to incomprehensible, but I love to listen. I find the sound of Luganda pleasing; it is filled with repetition, tuula, tuula to say "sit down" and mpola, mpola — "slowly!" Speech is rapid, musical, filled with soft consonants and a popping percussion of eee and mmm and aaa — a kind of cooing, like polite doves. I can often tell different kinds of conversations from the amount of time spent in courteous, ritualized exchange. I know when someone is telling a story by the rise and fall of a shifting narrative, the changing voice; I think I know each she said and he said. There's no clear gender pronoun in Luganda, but I hear it in the voice.
When I speak — in English — my audience listens to me politely and then turns to Joseph or John or Rose, who translate for me — often with far more or far fewer words than I have used. The person to whom I am speaking squints at my interpreter and then at me and sighs: eeeh. I suspect they are too polite to say what is on their mind: to exclaim, "That is a weird thing to say" or “I wonder if she has gone mad."
Sometimes, he or she says one more thing and everyone but me laughs loudly and sighs together in one long communal eeeh.
Uganda is a fiction, the borders drawn by invaders. Those long waves (Arabs, then Germans, then British, then Chinese and just about everyone else) have left a mark. This is still a tribal world: here are 43 languages currently spoken widely in Uganda. Luganda is the most common, with millions of native speakers and at least a million secondary speakers, and the difference between the formal, textbook language I study on my own and the spoken language is, as in English, considerable. Most Ugandans speak at least two languages fluently, often three, mixing vocabularies freely. Often the first or second language is Luganda, and many speak English or another foreign language like Chinese, German, Hebrew or Arabic — and finally, Swahili or another tribal language. Between themselves, they speak so quickly that I have trouble parsing out a single word.
Luganda was not written until a century ago, and the orthography was not agreed upon until 1947. It was written down only by European missionaries, and who knows what they missed and how their mistakes reshaped the culture and, perhaps, the religion they transmitted. The Catholic Church, here for many decades, and the new influx of evangelicals, also influence language. There were no words for “original sin” or “crucifixion” until Christians arrived. "The first writing clearly was a pilot venture, an improvisation," states the official document on Luganda by the Kingdom of Buganda (which, of course, has a web site).
The language is full of subtle accents, but the orthography has no diacritics. "Consequently some confusion may arise," says one of my grammar sources. The phonetics and even its fundamental structure are still debated, and whether or not its orthography is really controversial to linguists, I certainly find a lot with which to argue. Vowels may be written as single or double, for instance. Two dissimilar vowels are never found beside each other. Ch does not exist as a written combination, but ki can sound like ch and c is actually close to ky.
There are ten classes of nouns. Instead of articles, initial vowels are added to words, often regardless of the number involved. Take the root of a word and add a prefix and you have added context and description. So mu-wala means "girl" and ka-wala is a little girl (sometimes as an endearment) and ki-wala is a big girl (which can be an endearment or an insult) and lu-wala is a slender girl (sometimes an insult) and gu-wala is a big, ugly girl (always an insult). These additions change the class of the noun "girl" and noun classes determine many things and can't be avoided.
There are seven tenses, from the distant past to the far future. The week starts on Monday, ends on Sunday. Here on the equator, where day and night are always equal, many rural Ugandans still use a twelve-hour clock. Hour 1 is dawn (Lugaba yabuggyako eddiba — "God took the skin off") and twilight is Kalabiriza-bazaana — "It distracts the maidservants." After that, counting the hours is not very useful. It's too dark to do anything. Late evening can be described as Kawozamasiga — "It cools the cooking stones."
I say all this to excuse my own ignorance; I can usually pick up basic conversation in another language, but Luganda leaves me behind. Bulungi is the least of it. My friends here speak English fluently, as most educated Ugandans do. (The interpreters immediately began calling Marty, a retired internist, "the “Professor” because he had a white beard.) Like most Ugandans, they are too polite to make a fuss about my clumsy mistakes (but not too polite to be amused by them, for Allen or Dora to stroke my arm, calling me dear and laughing gently). David, my American friend who lived at the clinic for a year, remembers how long it took before he realized that when he was trying to get water — Njagala maazi, "I want water" — he was saying instead Njagala mazii: "I want shit." He only noticed the "knee-slapping laughter," without knowing why. I will add only that you want to know the word for umbilical cord before you try to talk about being stuck.
Most of the histories and cultural analyses and overviews of Ugandan culture that I've read say absolutely nothing about language. Books with sweeping titles about the “people of Uganda” and “the making of Uganda” and (my favorite) “the problem of Uganda” do not mention that the people living there speak another language. They simply ignore it as a source of concern or understanding, even when the prose is sprinkled here and there with single Luganda words.
Of course, I knew none of this for years. I haven't studied the language in any orderly way, just listened to it and tried to speak it and asked for lots of help. So what I think I know about Luganda is this: it is spoken rapidly, but without hurry. People almost always speak softly. They are patient to the point of fatalism. There are frequent pauses, polite periods of waiting so the other can speak.
In 2014, I helped host a public event in Portland, Oregon on the anti-homosexuality movement in Uganda. An Anglican priest who had been censured for ministering to gay people, Bishop Ssenyonjo, and an activist known as Long Jones, who was seeking asylum, spoke to a sympathetic crowd. They stood together to take questions on stage: the elderly Bishop, rotund and quite short, next to Jones, lean and well over six feet tall. Yet they seemed more alike than different. People stood in turn to ask questions, often blunt and personal in the American way, often meandering, and then the Bishop and Jones looked at each other, waiting politely for the other to speak, thoughtful, unhurried, until finally into the silence one spoke, pausing to let the other join, pausing again, speaking at less than half the speed with which the question was asked.
Ugandans are good at waiting and good at silence, but better at conversation. The subject of a conversation may not be what it seems to be. The Western obsession with telling it like it is strikes Ugandans as sharply as our slovenly dress and unkempt hair. And the American accent is amusing and strange. When I try to say a simple sentence, "It is raining today" — tonnya, rain, drip, leak — the children laugh wildly. I've often seen children fall down, laughing. At me.
They speak softly but laugh often and with great pleasure, and nowhere else have I heard people laugh with such a pure sound of "Ha! Ha! Ha!" Almost the only h in the written language is used to transcribe laughter. One says Wo wo wo! for amazement but Woowe! or Yaaye! for pain. Maama! means you are envious. Owange means you are confused. (That's a good word to know.) But eeeh? Or hmm? They are everywhere in language books, scattered in every transcript. In one thick book of lessons, I find a glossary of new words, including these definitions.
Wuuu - Wuuu
Mmm - Mmm
Eee - Eee
Oo - Oo
I read in the Foreign Service Institute textbook that to teach the use of such interjections, which are critical to the swap and barter of conversation, an instructor should "Say [Mmm.] as it is used in greetings. Say it several times, and teach the students to say it exactly as you do." But how is that? I have never heard it sound the same way twice. The lesson continues:
B: Ekyali nnungi.
A: Mmm. [OR] Eee.
A: Ekyali nnungi.
And so it goes.
This is a culture where everyone has a title and you shake hands gently with each person you meet, say hello and how are you and what a lot of rain we are having to the bank clerk and the waitress and the eggplant seller before enacting business. Hello is accompanied by an open hand, palm out, slowly shaking the hand back and forth. Often people turn their heads a little to the side in conversation — especially women, hiding their mouths in a moment of shyness. I've seen women pull their scarves completely over their heads. Many older women and children kneel and bow their heads in greeting. Most people change into good clothes before leaving the house for even a brief errand. You don't make eye contact with your elders. "You are fat" may be a neutral observation — perhaps a compliment. Sometimes I know there is a conflict because everyone gets quieter. (The saying goes, Ekimala empaka kusirika: "The way to settle a dispute is to keep silent.") Modesty is valued, complaint and bragging are strongly discouraged, but people love to tease each other. Talk about the weather; talk about the crops; talk, perhaps, about politics. Don't talk about yourself. (It was only on my third trip that James asked me a personal question. He was driving me to the airport — to "push me off," as they say, a phrase that can cause confusion — when he said, “Can I ask you a question about your internal affairs? You will not be annoyed?” I told him no, go ahead. “Are you married?” he asked.)
You can imagine how Americans run into trouble here: we love to make “I-statements” and process our feelings out loud and get to the point. We put a value on bluntness and self-disclosure. We think a business deal is about winning and losing. Ugandans do none of this. I've made many ham-handed mistakes and seen so many more by well-meaning Americans who are trying to be of help and think getting right down to business and laying all our cards on the table are universal goods. (I tried to explain to another American about ekimala empaka kusirika. She was startled by the idea. “But you have to talk things out!” she said. “How can you ever solve a problem if you don’t talk about it? You should say what’s on your mind. You should just say what you mean. What you want.” This impulse can be a source of much distress.)
Several friends from Uganda have come to the United States, and I see how they carry Uganda with them. I see it in their patience, their easy manners, their concern with feelings. Conversation between acquaintances is sprinkled with barely translatable intimacies like bambi and banange wano. Everything sparkles and slides with the endless repetition of ooo and hmm and eeeh, interjections that are partly an acknowledgement, a signal that one is present, ready, paying attention. That one word, eeeh, says more to me about Uganda than the volumes of history I have read. Eeeh is affirmation, negation, philosophy, and existentialism. It is relation, time, self; it says "I am here" and "I have heard you" and also "I don't think so" and "Isn't life a corker?"
How easily we get lost, just by not knowing how people live from day to day. (And how do we learn the way people live, without knowing the words?) Mayinnanyi is the portion equivalent to eight ribs given to the third spearer in a hunting party, and I love knowing the word without any hope of ever needing to use it in a conversation. I could be wrong about a thousand nuances here; I am sure there are mistakes that I cannot imagine. These are traditional sayings, clichés and aphorisms and slang; the colloquial language changes constantly. Bwanda, a weed that is hard to eradicate, becomes okutuula obwanda, "to stay for good." Ntaligita is a kind of fruit. Ekigere kye kisotta entaligita n'ozirya means "Her foot crushes the fruit and you still eat it." (You must really like her!) Here jjenje is the name of a large cricket, and the word is used to say "it's easy to do" because these crickets are delicious. Nsejjere means termite, and can be used to say you are getting up early. The Ugandan version of "It never rains, but it pours" — which is literally true in Uganda, it seems to me — is Tukyawoza gwa kkapa kuzaala mbwa, ng'ate endiga ewalampa enju: "We are still discussing the cat giving birth to a dog, and then a sheep climbs up on the house."
When I tell people I am going to Uganda, they sometimes express concern, even fear. Isn't it dangerous? What about guerillas? HIV? Homophobia? But what I've found is a tranquil region of farmers and extended families living near where they were born, in ways not unlike the ways their own grandparents lived, although usually with a smart phone and a few old American t-shirts added. Even at the clinic where people may be very ill and are often quite poor, many seem to be amused at the vagaries of the world and to share a constitutional good cheer.
David reminds me how a Ugandan who "suddenly sees that a bazungu or even another muganda understands." The person says, with emphasis, "Uh-HUUUNH!" She slaps her knee or claps her hands or sharply points with four fingers, the thumb folded down — "cutting the air and almost lurching forward in a sudden (but short-lived) jab, the whole body in unison exclaiming, 'Yes, exactly!'"
My first job at the clinic, several years ago when it was a single room echoing with a dozen voices, was to take medical histories. I sat on a narrow wooden bench with one of the interpreters beside me and spoke with the patient — perhaps fifty in a day, sometimes many more — and made a little small talk (Oliotya) and then asked what brought them there. The answers ranged from odd-ball metaphors about volcanoes and butterflies and snakes to world-weary descriptions of chronic illnesses they had suffered from their entire lives. I saw many people with birth defects and skeletal abnormalities, with severe polio or amputations or withered limbs, who were at the clinic for every reason but the obvious ones. I saw people with migraines and arthritis and congestive heart failure and cancer, though none of them knew these terms. Athlete’s foot. Sickle cell. Chicken pox. Gout. A thirty-year-old woman with a prolapsed uterus eventually tells me that the doctor she saw in Masaka said her problem was caused by her lack of “sex play.” A young man who was in a bicycle accident came in, half the skin on his face scraped off. For an hour, I cleaned his wounds and murmured to him, to myself, trying to fit dressings to the sharp curves of his cheekbone and jaw. We did this every day for a week. He spoke no English, but we understood each other just fine. He winced; I winced.
Everyone, and who could blame them, wanted medicine, no matter what their complaint. So we gave out a lot of Tums, which helped with the frequent stomach complaints and added calcium, and had the advantage of being big and colorful and chewy. We gave a lot of vitamins, and filled prescriptions in little envelopes with pictures of moons and suns so we can explain when to take the pills. Then our careful explanation would be interrupted by a cell phone, hidden in a woman's traditional sash or a farmer's dusty old suit coat pocket.
As long as I’ve been involved with the clinic, I’ve been aware of the sense of urgency many of the board members and volunteers feel – call it a sense of justice, a desire to do good, to fix this very broken world. There is youth in it and energy and at times something close to anger. Now is when things should be better, now is when the clinic should be able to do everything the villagers need it to do. Now is just today to the person waiting in line for several hours.
On the way out from Kampala once, a group of us stopped in Masaka, seven Americans and our Ugandan friend, John, the director of the clinic. One of the doctors, a veteran of several trips here, insisted that we ask about getting certain supplies from one of the AIDS organizations there. We had no appointment at their clinic, and there were eight of us, tired and dusty. Many were dressed in shorts and T-shirts and flip-flops. We stood out dramatically in the calm, grassy courtyard where the staff wore neat uniforms and dresses. After a short wait, the director, Magdalena, came to our summons and led us to a cool room with a large table and several chairs. Magdalena was an old woman with one milky eye, wearing a floor-length, immaculate, white dress and apron. She moved slowly and gracefully, and stood until everyone had taken a seat.
As soon as she joined us, one of the doctors said, without preamble, “We have two questions — ”
Magdalena raised her hand to stop her.
“First I want to know who you are,” she said.
Buntubulamu, says my dictionary. Good breeding, courtesy, manners, the compassion showed by being polite — and so much more. One by one, she went around the table, taking each person's hand, asking our names, saying to each of us in slow, careful English, “Nice to meet you,” in a slow, lilting voice.
As soon as this was done, the doctor began to speak again, and then stopped and, clearly frustrated, sat back all at once.
“I will ask John to explain,” she said.
John was sitting directly across from Magdalena, but he didn't look at her. Instead he gazed at the table and to the side, glancing up at her face for a second now and then. He spoke for a while in Luganda, and then in English. He reviewed our history with the organization, our gratitude for all they had done, and how that help had translated into the work we were doing in Uganda. He talked for many minutes, saying we thank you several times. Only then did he mention the supplies we needed.
She hummed under her breath for a time, hmmm. “I will talk to someone first. I must speak with another.” Ugandans don’t like to say no. I believe she has nothing to offer us that we are a spot of trouble in her day, impatient and clumsy bzungu, but she does not want to simply say no. She rises and leaves the room.
To my surprise, the doctor stands up and announces that we should just go to the hospital next door and see if they can help us. She sees no point in waiting.
To leave then, while Magdalena was still trying to help us, seemed all wrong. Everyone left but me, walking quickly along the shady walk past the slowly moving patients who watched without expression — too polite to show their true reaction to this fast-moving herd of foreigners.
In about ten minutes, Magdalena returned. I could see her coming along the walk, stopping to speak quietly with a person every few feet. Finally she reached the conference room and stood in the doorway, looking around at the empty chairs. I felt acutely embarrassed — embarrassed for all of us, for the whole great generation of clumsy, blunt Americans who have tried to fix the world and change things, who believe in being empowered and speaking up and getting self-actualized and taking care of business. I felt embarrassed for all the untold times that I have been the one pushing, prodding, missing the point.
She had little English; I had less Luganda, but I told her thank you again and shook her hand. Finally I asked her to point me to the hospital. She walked me slowly all the way out of the small complex, the polite thing to do, and pointed me toward a building in the distance. Several marabou storks pecked in the grass. I walked along the path and over a small hill to find my group. They had stopped on the path to look at the storks. Two staff people approached from behind, waited a moment, and then seemed to realize that they wouldn't be noticed, and stepped to the side onto the grass. None of the Americans seemed to notice what an obstruction they had become.
And yet. I was marked from the beginning. In the early days of the clinic, before we had reliable electricity, we would gather after dark at the picnic tables to share a single light bulb. We played Hearts and Shanghai, and Ronnie taught us the Ugandan version of Parcheesi. Geckos darted across the ground, chasing the noisy crickets, while endless unseen insects sang in the black night. When the light bulb sputtered out, we would just sit in the dark, watching the carpet of stars.
"Sallie, do you booze?" Ronnie would say, offering the bottle of whiskey.
Later I carefully found my way back to the dorm, where the nurses and interpreters bathed and coated their coffee skin with lotion and braided each other's hair before curling up together to watch Brazilian soap operas on a laptop — all the time murmuring to each other, humming like distant bees, murmuring in the queries and jokes and compliments of a language I cannot speak, will never speak.
Sitegeera, I want to say. "I don't understand." Nsyonyiwa, "I am sorry, I am so ashamed, I completely lack good manners."