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Words & Land & Maybe Magic

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Reflections on learning the language of my home as an adult. June 2021.

The many varieties of "expatriate" childhood with all their myriad baggage deserve a close treatment. On subtle distinctions between immigrant and traveler, refugee, tourist, the whiteness working in the shadows and the gorgeous moments of true global identity, much should be said. Let me start up close.

My own childhood was the many contradictions of the Christian missionary world - tough, gritty, good people stuck in their ideas about God. Determined to help people, at the urge of something deep in their gut, determined that the people they help call it by the same name they do: Jesus, or something.

There, my opening memories are the earliest years, where any language you hear is marvelous, mysterious, incantatory. At three years old, any conversation is an intoxicating success. To be surrounded, then, by a soundscape of many colours is an inestimable blessing when you are young.

In the English language alone, I heard every word interpreted with great freedom: the soft edges and grammatical precision of the American expatriate, Kenyan English rolling with the textures of a more dexterous tongue, the warm, sliding tones of my southern American grandparents, the wry clip of a white Kenyan.

And the moment I stepped outside our house in the dappled Loita hills, walking with Oleseti, our askari and an early friend, the bubbling mirage of Maa, like glass-blown beads in the mouth, joined the raucous music of the bush.

I like to think I understood it then - and I’m certain that in some sense I did - but it remained mostly as a sonic footprint, tones I’d learned to hear, sounds I’d learned to shape. We moved back to the United States until I was eight, capturing those critical years of language formation in a monolingual bubble. I’d lost my chance to speak as a local, whatever that means.

And so upon returning I was a converted American English speaker through and through. I’d learned to say “sweet” and “sick” as the kids in their shorts in the swimming pool do. And so it was through to my high school graduation, where I was awarded a swarm of plaques for my proficiency and even cleverness in a cultural curriculum that was foreign to the very land I traversed. To be an island, surely.

A landscape in my blood before ever in my words.

Without another way to know, it was with the land itself that I built my sense of home. My relationship to Kenya, utterly authentic even then, was aesthetic and physical, a deep belonging to a landscape, rooted, I still believe, in those first years of scrambling up the dusky golden hills of the Loita in a hot dry wind that whispers the same secret language to every human ear.

But were I to encounter a person - what fear! - I didn't know how to communicate about this land we both loved. Our bookshelves at home creaked with Karen Blixen, Elspeth Huxley, Hemingway, Conrad, anyone trying to articulate in our English tradition the place experience of East Africa.

But it is one thing to know a place in the immediate, visceral sense. Another entirely to know it through the history imprinted in the languages it has grown. Of that, I had no knowledge. The little Swahili and Maasai I knew as a teenager served more as entertainment for visiting Americans than as relationship to my African peers.

Was I ashamed of this? As an adolescent, like most, I was too self-involved to be. So I blame myself only inasmuch as I forgive myself. I do blame an international school system that did so shockingly little to ground its students in its host country. I think I took one semester of elective Swahili (from a teacher who always looked perturbed amongst the overwhelmingly monolingual, white faculty). I barely once studied Kenyan culture or history.

I blame, in another sense, a religious subculture that had its youth so fixated on their various sexual indiscretions and other such misdemeanors that they had little spiritual bandwidth left to actually be present, listening, still.

Early, wordless connections.

I don’t blame my parents - they were up against the Xbox in their attempts to Rosetta Stone me. Both of my parents are linguaphiles, my father a lifelong learner and storyteller who mastered first Maasai in his veterinary days and later Swahili. His easy rapport with the most remote goatherd or the guy at the immigration desk remains my inspiration. My mother was a high school English teacher, so my love for Dickens, woven plots and wordcraft comes honestly.

There are certain qualities of certain missionaries that even the most hardened secularists among us ought to admire; theirs is the simple realisation that if you think you have something important to share, you ought to learn to say it in a way people will understand. But these are only the very best. Forcing a foreign tongue (and a language of “meaning”) results more often in hollow, gaudy facsimile draped like a pastel tablecloth over a precious sandalwood meza. Which is, of course, now most Christianity in Kenya.

But we ought to admire far more the millions of our African fellows who have muscled into our perplexing, unintuitive language for sheer survival in the festering rubble of empire. And often not only survive, but put many of our clumsy monolinguists to shame. The words of Thiong’o were a revelation to my older self. Binyavanga’s shimmering memoire remains a work of such magical physicality I could only hope to emulate it someday.

I have frequent conversations now with Kenyan colleagues who wonder why so few wazungu have even tried to learn Swahili, and I offer my best opinion: guns, germs, and steel (as they say) carved out a world where they don’t have to. But material power is spiritual poverty; the secret wealth you don’t know you don’t have in your one-dimensional intellect.

This has been me for much of my life. Being a white man, I think, is like acing a test you wrote for yourself, and feeling quite good about it.


But there is a happy ending, or rather beginning, to this story. Though happy may be the wrong word, because it begins with a great deal of embarrassment.

Picture, for example, James as a freshman in college in Nashville, biking eight miles across town in a tank top to join a gathering of East Africans in Tennessee that he found on Facebook. Imagine his great shame upon realizing that of course 3 PM meant 5 PM (as any real Kenyan would have known), and his further embarrassment under the disappointed gaze of Kenyan woman who realized he couldn’t maintain a Swahili conversation for longer than a minute.

But if I may use a lofty quotation: “shame is a revolution in itself,” said Marx. And my small revolution was the decision that someday, I wouldn’t be so deeply insecure and hapless in such a situation.

Thus began my painstaking journey back into the language of my childhood home. A bit of grammar here, a bit of DuoLingo there, but mostly I turned the things I already loved to my advantage: long expeditions into the mountains or the bush with only Swahili speakers. The early ones were quite lonely, particularly when I realized, as porters on Mount Kenya reverted to Gikikuyu, that Swahili often isn’t even the preferred language, itself imported and bastardized (it came on a boat, Kenyans often joke).

But we start where we are, I suppose. Unsurprisingly, much of my early vocabulary revolved around rocks, ropes, and rescues - but slowly, personal history, religion (my favorite topic), and one day, on the grizzled volcanic rocks of Kilimanjaro, birth control and reproductive rights with three Tanzanian rangers. Furrowed brows, not of confusion but of consideration, suddenly told me: the magic dialectic was back.

Steve Masaga on Kilimanjaro. We are all teachers to one another.

We were beyond communication and suddenly into meaning. And I saw a flash of all the human shades of my home landscape that I had never learned to see, a flash of an entirely different future I could have here.

It was that trip where my personal principles of language learning were distilled:

First, embarrassment is not only a possibility, it is an ingredient; and humility is a muscle you must build. (Learning a new language as a monolingual white man is a most profound spiritual practice.)

Second, learn how to talk about things you already care about, doing things you already love. I’ve always had enough Swahili to get directions through my open car window and for years, absurdly, called that “conversant.” Simply getting information with another set of words is a hollow achievement. The goal must be more than to communicate; it must be to relate.

Third, find patient people. The sheer generosity of some of my Kenyan and Tanzanian colleagues and students (for example, as I tried to explain volcanic geology with a vocabulary of two hundred words) continues to astonish me.

And finally, as with my native tongue, there is no destination to this journey. It will change instead the quality of the journey itself, unveiling colours and textures I couldn’t have imagined before.


The very week I'm writing this, I had the heady experience of sitting down under a tree deep in the bush with five Pokot elders and conducting a three hour meeting entirely in Swahili. They laughed at my jokes. I understood nuances in their opinions. One called me to make sure I made it home safely and said, “Utakuwa mwenyeji, Jamo.” "You’ll be a local," whatever that is.

The next day I was filling out paperwork for my new work permit and asked our HR manager how he would describe my Swahili, thinking he’d be as impressed with me as I was with myself.

He made a noncommittal noise, and then, with an apologetic grin, said, “Basic, at best.”

I suppose I feel a bit like I’m three years old again, bewitched by the very ability to relate. It feels like magic. And I think, perhaps, it is.


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