I hate that moment in a conversation when I’ve run through everything I had to say and don’t know how to end the talk gracefully. Over here it happens much faster than usual, because I only know a few words. I stumble through hi, how are you, and sputter to a stop after what’s your name. If the person keeps trying to talk to me, I can say I don’t speak Swahili. Then I wait for something to happen.
One of my landlady’s daughters is on vacation from school and she offered to teach me Swahili yesterday. So I pulled out the curriculum I was given and began walking through it with her. Four other would-be teachers gather around and help me learn the words for father, mother, child, cat, dog. Many of the words I will forget soon because we’ve gone too fast.
Later I retired to my apartment (two rooms about six feet square, one of them almost entirely taken up by the bed) and wrote out guidelines for future language sessions. Only speak Swahili during the lesson. Introduce words one at a time and practice them until you’re bored enough to scream. The point is that I am a child in this language—I need to listen a lot to common words and respond nonverbally. I need to get the words so far into my memory that I can say them without thinking and think of them before the English comes to mind.
This morning we had matins and liturgy in the archdiocesan chapel here. The chapel is only a little more than twice the size of one of my rooms. Listening to the prayers is comforting, because I can figure out what point in the service it is and hear words that will be repeated tomorrow and the next day.
Next project: buy a bottle of water without a translator.
I love it here.