An Ode to Swahili

β€œIf you could have absolutely any super power, what would it be?”

Ever been asked that question before?

My answer is always…I’d pick being able to speak and understand each and every language on this earth. Occasionally I say I would like to read minds, but I think languages is more appealing to me.

I am fascinated by language, by words, that is no secret.

At this point, someone keen would point out that that, in fact, cannot qualify as a super power, the being able to speak and understand many languages.

β€œIt’s called being multi-lingual, Kathleen,” they will say to me.

Well, stop raining on my parade and let me and my basic super power be! What can I say, I’m a simple girl.

Today I am reminded of the power of language. Language has the power to make us feel at home.

I’ve done a tad bit of traveling in my short lifetime, and I hope that in future I get to do much much more! I have those dreams of filling up a passport with stamps, dreams of being able to pick one of those miniature globes of the world when I am in my 80s or 90s and asking my grand kids to point to any country on the globe and then proceed to tell them all about my adventures in that country!

The story teller that I am, I suspect I shall tell them these stories so many times that they’ll know them by heart and be bored out of their minds, but old as I shall be, they shall politely sit there and listen and feign interest and surprise even though they could probably tell the stories better than me by that point. I hope God gives me patient grand children for this purpose.

Back to language, I was recently thinking about my short travel stints. I am always so excited to board a plane and go. Wanderlust. One thing is for sure though, soon enough, sooner than you might imagine, the homesickness sets in. There’s the initial fear, uncertainty, new place, I don’t know anyone…but that fear normally wears off. Replaced by, excitement, fatigue, adventure…


I remember what it felt like to get on a KQ flight headed home after being in Australia for 3 months. I will never forget how inexplicably content and at ease I felt right from the boarding gate when I started to hear other Kenyans speak Swahili and Sheng’. I love to travel but home is home and I could not believe what comfort just hearing people speak Swahili gave me in that moment. (A bit of a history here…Swahili was a thorn in my side all through primary and high school…a story for another day perhaps, but how ironic that after all the suffering it caused me, I was ecstatic to just hear it!)

A few weeks prior to my heading back home, I had been in Australia with a close friend of mine. She had been my little piece of home far away from home. We would often switch to Swahili/Sheng’ in public places, just because…you know? It made home not feel too far away, it made us feel special to be able to speak it, and really, we could be talking about anyone or anything in the vicinity and they would have no clue! See the allure yet? Never mind once again that given where we went to school, Swahili could literally have been a second language to us. Far away from home, it was our super power!

While away, I had Sauti Sol’s first album, Mwanzo, constantly on replay. I am a Sauti Sol groupie, unashamedly. They don’t even know I exist but I am a fan to the end! I am sentimentally attached to them because they made homesickness bearable. Laazizi, Asubuhi, Subira…look at me conveniently listing only the Swahili titled songs off of their album! I love the whole album though. It was the only Kenyan music I had and I reckon I played the album every morning before heading to work, or every afternoon after work, or both, either way I would be found bellowing my lungs out, savoring those songs because I just missed hearing Swahili, missed being home.

The English speaker that I am, I remember once posting a status update in Swahili while away. One of my friends, (if you are reading this, Wangari it is you I speak of! I spent about 10 minutes combing through my Facebook posts from 2012 searching for that particular one as proof!), immediately called me out on it! Mentioning how she had noticed that people who go abroad always suddenly feel the need to write/speak in Swahili, even where before, they were noticeably more comfortable in English. I reckon it has to do with identity, belonging. No matter how far from home one may be, the Swahili(or insert relevant language) always makes you feel like perhaps home might not be too far away after all.

So this here is my little ‘Ode to Swahili’.

It may not be poetry but only because I can do a better job in prose.

Swahili was my lowest grade in my high school finals, I cried and cried and cried, just ask my friend Mwende, she was there, we cried together.

I often confidently start a sentence in Swahili and realise half way that I do not have the words, or rather the words do not come fast enough, for me to finish, so I give up and switch to English, I bet we are many.

I still do not know what ‘chwani’ or ‘a shoe’ is even though matatu conductors are always, whilst looking at me incredulously, giving me the layman equivalent when they notice my confused expression.

My definition of Sheng’ is throwing in the occasional Swahili word in an English sentence, whereas my definition of Swahili is the Swahili I was taught in 8.4.4, which might be equivalent to speaking Shakespearean English and expecting to blend in among present day English-speaking folk.

Absurd, right?

Yet I have found that this language means home.

Language has the power to make us feel at home.

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