When I went to Kenya, I knew that, in order to gain more than a superficial understanding of the country, I would have to learn Swahili – the one language almost everyone in Kenya spoke. A university advisor, who spoke Swahili, offered sage advice: Learning a language is much more than learning how to express yourself. It’s learning what to say.
I took the advice to heart, and found it to be true – true of any language, when you think about it. In everyday conversations, we’re usually unaware of how ritualized our speech is. We become aware of it when we learn another language, and find ourselves memorizing standard greetings, responses to greetings, conversational gambits, acceptable things to say, things to avoid saying. In time, however, you find that greetings are more than rituals. They’re markers of culture, and they can help you learn much more than language.
I worked hard on Swahili greetings, graceful ways of ending conversations, things to say in parting, and much more, but I also wanted to learn how to say the things I wanted to say, so I carried a notebook and scribbled it full of vocabulary, and a dictionary, in which I searched tirelessly for the words and phrases that would allow me to express my thoughts.
I got pretty good at it, and in time, I became able sometimes to express myself in quite subtle ways, and say things people didn’t normally expect to hear coming from white faces. My proudest moments were when I elicited an exclamation: “Kumbe, wewe ndio ndani kabisa.” – “Boy, you really know what’s going on.”
But one thing stumped me. I couldn’t figure out how to deal with a situation we encounter daily: You’re walking down the hall, or through a crowded room, and you accidentally brush someone in passing. You say: “excuse me” or “I beg your pardon.” How do you say that in Swahili? I couldn’t figure it out.
It drove me crazy until one day, I was buying petrol in a gas station. At the same time, I was working on my car and the attendant, in order to reach the mouth of the gas tank, had to pass the hose in front of me, while he walked behind me. In passing the hose from one hand to the other, he found himself, in effect, putting his arms around me. Silence, not a word spoken.
Eureka. I had the answer. It was so obvious I couldn’t see it, and it pointed to a profound difference between Europeans and Africans. Africans didn’t have the same sense of personal distance Europeans did. In Africa, touching someone was not an incident. I should have noticed it: People jammed together in elevators or buses, sometimes engaging in the usual African patter of jokes and laughter, not apparently discomfited. In similar circumstances in Canada, people shift uncomfortably and look at their shoes.
In Africa — or at least Africa as I came to understand it decades ago — touching someone wasn’t different from looking at them, or looking away from them for that matter. The reserve underlying Canadian ideas of personal distance was not part of the culture.