First Chichewa conversation

Today was my first genuine full conversation in the local Chichewa language. I suppose I should note that I was speaking with a kid who was probably 7 years old and I was running at the time, but it really was a conversation, honestly. We both fully understood each other — it went something very close to this:

Group of kids: White guy! White guy! White guy! (Actually Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!
[If you don’t follow the link to Wikipedia, I have some more details and an alternate etymological theory about this word at the bottom.]

Don to Group: See you soon.
{Ten minutes later I come running back again to the accumulating group of kids}
Group of kids: Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!
Don: Let’s go! {I wave to them and a couple kids start running along with me. A girl emerges as the lead runner of a group that quickly dwindles to two.}
Don: How are you?
Kid: I am good, and you?
Don: I am good too. Thank you.
Kid: Thank you.
Don: My name is Don — what about you?
{Kid says name}
Don: Thank you {name}.
Kid: Where are you going?
Don: I am going to Balaka.
Kid: Nice.
Don: Thanks. {Don notices the second kid falls off the pace and returns to the rest of the kids.}
Don: He is tired.
Kid: Yes, he is tired
Don: I am tired. {Kid & Don laugh}
Don: I am not tired! {Don accelerates for a few strides.}
Don: I am tired! {Don goes back to original pace. We laugh again.}
Kid: I am tired. {Kid stops abruptly}
Don: See you!
Kid: See you!
Don: Zikomo! {That’s thank you in Chichewa}

Somewhere in the 500 metres that the kid joined me, a guy on a bicycle must have attached onto the back end of the conversation. Or perhaps he was just curious why a little kid was following a mzungu. I am reasonably confident that he thinks I speak Chichewa (at least a lot more than I do) because he started up the conversation by asking where I was going and I told him. And he then started talking and I would gasp the odd “in-dee-to” (which mean indeed) when he paused. Then he headed down a different path and said something like have a nice day and I said thank you and that was that.

The more successful I get at introductions and such, the more often someone starts talking away until I say “I don’t understand” in Chichewa and the “Do you speak English?” That is normally followed by more Chichewa and I smile and say in Chichewa “sorry I don’t understand”, and we usually laugh and that is that. Or we talk in english.

** The white guy thing (“mzungu”) is something I hear every day, especially when I run, in which case I will hear it close to every minute from kids in every direction. I was recently told, and Wikipedia confirms, that the root of the moniker is a Chichewa verb -zungulira which means to go around (and around). So white people were the ones always wanting to go around to the other side of this that and everything, so they became the go-around-people. My little Chichewa book lists another verb -zunguzika which is to become confused. Maybe I am just one of the confused people going around Malawi — that makes much more sense.

Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.


About donmcmurtry

I went to Rensselaer, I worked at RDM and at RIM. Perhaps we have paddled together or worked on some kind of conservation project together. In any case welcome to this blog which will most likely be used for my Engineers Without Borders project in Malawi.
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2 Responses to First Chichewa conversation

  1. CV says:

    and on that note,
    what is “congratulations” in Chichewa?

  2. Sean says:

    Hey Don!
    That’s really awesome. : ) Making a good first impression! Something tells me that your chichewa skills will just ramp up from here!
    Wishing you all the best (and looking forward to more posts!),
    – Sean

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