Ugandan English at its best - kawa, oba what?

Trip Start Jul 28, 2009
Trip End Mar 13, 2010

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Flag of Uganda  , Kampala District,
Monday, October 12, 2009

After spending just over two months here in Uganda, I am still assiduously working on blending in with the crowd, which is kinda hard given the fact that I am rather easily spotted; so instead I am striving for that almost perfect assimilation! The goal: talk like the native! The result: well…I guess I succeeded, because this guy told me that, unlike other Bazungu, I speak really good English, almost like a Ugandan! (I really gotta learn to accept compliments!) In short, I have fallen victim of Uganlish.

Uganlish is actually not too much different from English English. (Or American or Scottish, Irish, Australian or any of the other many varieties of the English language - it is quite different from Frenglish though!) Basically, they ugandanise the words and the grammar a wee bit. For example, you are not going to 'town' to buy ‘cabbage’ but to ‘towny’ to buy ‘cabbagy’. And regardless of the level of English, they all do it at some point…adding the ‘y’. Why? Actually I don’t know, because they do not have that in Luganda, but I think it has to do with the intonation and rhythm of the language. Furthermore, the answer to ‘hello’ becomes ‘fine’. At first I thought I am speaking that unclear and believed they must have thought I say ‘How are you?’ in a contracted kind of way. (Okay, funny as this sounds, this guy I used to work with, Kevin, he used to say ‘how are you’ in this way and for over a year I thought he said ‘hello’; so it is possible!) But at second thought I realised they spoke Uganlish, because in Luganda the greeting is not simply ‘hello’, but it is always a question demanding you to respond affirmatively (even though you are really feeling like shit!). So, given the ugandanisation of the English language, ‘fine’ is the appropriate answer to ‘hello’.

But the worst thing about Uganlish is the what? The what! (Did you get that one?) This paragraph could be entitled: 'How 'the what' creeps into each what? each sentence!' Now, Ugandans like to put their statements into the form of a question, which they then answer immediately themselves, often accompanied by a choir of voices from the attentive listeners. In other words, people often insert ‘the what’ in their what? their sentence to ensure that people do what? that people listen carefully - well, at least this is my guess. And I hate it. I hate ‘the what’, I do! And I never answer along! I hate it that much. (I finally get Gun’s hatred for ‘like’.) So, when I went to that Career Guidance Day, the facilitator used ‘the what’ in literally every second what? Aarrrgghhhh…and I had the pleasure of sitting next to Doreen, who made it her mission to answer every ‘what’ to the best of her ability. Can you imagine, she answered his ‘what’s’ for around 3 hours. The first hour or so I was annoyed at both of them. But then…it kinda amused me and by the end of the day I really had to bite my tongue not to laugh out loud, because let me tell you, she wasn’t really good at it. She got it wrong more often than not. (Then why not just shut up??)

Yet, I love Uganlish. Okay, sometimes it takes a bit of guessing; yet, once you have figured out what they mean to say, you will realise that these words and phrases actually make sense and you thus start using them as well. For instance, this woman asks me whether I like ‘footing’. ???? footing…as in ‘to foot’??? Not to seem all that dull, I just did that fake-out thing I learned from the Ellen DeGeneres DVD (‘well…phhh…ja….you know…I mean…hmmm…actually’) to buy myself some time. And it worked (just as Ellen promised), because this woman said something along the line of me ‘moving’ (we will get to this one in due course) a lot, whereas other bazungu prefer to take a boda-boda. Ah, she meant to ask me whether I liked to walk (i.e. use my feet). Well, I guess the answer then has to be: Yes, I like to foot! And I wonder, why do we use ‘walk’, ‘pace’, ‘saunter’, ‘march’, ‘stroll’ or any of the other million of synonyms when we actually have a perfect word right there…‘to foot’ - because that is what we are doing when we are walking: using the feet! (By the way, I actually looked ‘to foot’ up in my faithful servant, the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (had to be sure, right?), and ‘to foot’ exists! Yes, it does, but only in the idiom ‘foot the bill’, meaning ‘to be responsible for paying the cost of something’. Guess, we do learn something everyday.)

Okay, so let me just show you a few Uganlish expressions, which I have sort of adopted or which make me smile every time I hear them.

‘to pick someone’ - meaning: to pick someone up. The first time someone told me that they’d pick me from town, I thought: ‘Pick me? Am I an apple?’ I was then told that there is no real time for all those unnecessary prepositions, because everybody understands ‘to pick someone’ just fine. Point taken! (Good I have already passed that Grammar exam.)

‘to give someone a push’ - meaning: to accompany someone somewhere, e.g. to bring someone to the station. I remember last time I was here and I was about to leave, Wycliffe and Francis brought me to the bus station. Goretti then said that she wished she could give me a push. I looked at her and wondered what she meant as it sounded like she could not wait to get rid of me. But when she told me that she had to stay in office and watch the phone and she highlighted that it was good that at least Francis is giving me that push, I understood her. Yet, while I have gladly adopted the dropping of the unnecessary prepositions, this one…doesn’t sound right to me!

‘to friend with someone’ - meaning: to be friends with someone. Okay, this one is in fact Danglish - but it would so fit!!! Tine said that when she pointed out that Goretti and I are ‘friending outside office’, which really made me laugh! I have actually used it here since and people understood me, so maybe it will catch on!

‘to move’ - meaning: to walk VS ‘to shift’ - meaning: to move. Yeah, it is simple as that: when you ‘move’, you walk, because you actually do move while walking and when you ‘shift’, you move, because you do shift your things to another location when you move. Simple!

‘to kwanjula’ - meaning: to get married in the traditional sense. Now, kwanjula (and the observant reader may remember) is the Luganda word for traditional wedding. Yet, since it is so common, the word is used in Ugandan English with ease, so hearing the sentence: ‘Oh, Vincent got kwanjula’ed (spelling, of course, is another matter) last month.’ is really no biggie! In fact, quite a few Luganda words have crept into the English language (theirs as well as mine): anti, meaning ‘so’; kakati, meaning ‘now’; kawa, meaning ‘cool’, ‘great’, ‘fantastic’; oba, space filler when one is not sure, often followed by an interrogative pronoun; gundi, meaning ‘thing’, when one does not remember the word (often they also substitute gundi with ‘whatever’, as in ‘Go and put this in the whatever!). So, a perfectly fine Uganlish sentence could be: Anti kakati, I bought the gundi for oba how much and it is really kawa!

‘to extend’ - meaning: to move over/ to make room for somebody else. This is really one of my favourites. So, you sit in a bus and someone tells you to ‘extend’ in order for more people to squeeze in. Kakati, ‘extend’, of course, means to make something bigger. Anti, at first glance one could think that it is used totally wrong, because instead of me making myself bigger, they ask me to make myself smaller for others to fit in as well. Yet, when one thinks about it (, which I admit I have done more than enough), what they are actually asking is to make the space bigger and this of course means I have to make myself smaller. Thus, the command: ‘Extend!’ is not really directed at me as such, but at the area, yet since the area cannot really act, I have to act on its behalf. Oba, I am not sure I make sense!

‘to go for a short/ long call’ - meaning: to go to the bathroom for either number one or two (see, we also got an euphemism for that, because it seems too embarrassing to say that we gotta pee or poo!)

‘to be lost’ - meaning: you haven’t been around for some time, people didn’t see you in a while. So, people will all the time tell me that I have been lost when I return from one of my trips. And in fact, they have a way of saying it that makes me feel somewhat guilty for not letting them know that I am travelling. (The same goes for their concern when they tell me that I am tired or hungry, when they actually mean to ask me if I am.)

‘the Adhollas’ - meaning: all the people who are with Adholla either at that moment or in general. Thus, Helene and Adholla are the Adhollas, yet his family would also be the Adhollas. Yet, when Helene is not with him, but with me, we could be the Helenes or the Nicoles (depending on who is speaking). And this one I love. Pick a name and make it plural to mean the entire group. No wasting time of saying ‘the group of 18 Danes that arrived last month with Karsten’, just call it ‘the Karstens’ and we all know what you mean!

So, now that you are up to date with the Uganlish, let me tell you about beating the buffalo. They have this Luganda saying here: ‘Okubye emboogo’ (you have beaten a buffalo). It is used to denote the incorrect use of English. So, here I am telling this guy (the same who told me I speak as good English as a Ugandan) that I prefer juice to soda. He starts laughing and said: ‘Okubye emboogo.’ - I had beaten a buffalo. Now, fair enough, English is not my first language, but what could I have possibly said wrong in such a simple sentence? He enlightened me by explaining that ‘juice’ is pronounced [dzu:i:s] and not [dzu:s], as I have mistakenly done (sorry for my crude phonetics). Wonder who really has beaten that buffalo!

Lastly, yet this is not really Uganlish, but more a family thing. Okay, so, when I was sick, everyone, including the doctor, thought it was Malaria. Now, I had to call my insurance company to make sure they will refund me the money I had spent on the what? the pills and the doctor (because no one here even knows my insurance company - ‘worldwide’ my ass!!). Of course, I spoke Danish to the woman on the phone. When I hung up I saw that Gore, Maama and Cynthia were cracking up. I mean, yes, Danish does sound funny, but … So, Gore asks me what malaria is in Danish and I answer ‘malaria’. Okay, I can see that this won’t be funny right now, as it is written just like in English. So, let me reapply my crude phonetics: ‘malaria’ in English is pronounced somewhat like [mə’leəriə] and in Danish [ma:la:ja:]. Now, here I am talking to this Danish lady on the phone and in the eyes of Gore, Maama and Cynthia I keep on insulting her, because [ma:la:ja:] in Luganda, written ‘malaya’ (I think), means ‘prostitute’. (Somehow one always ends up learning the nasty words…)

P.S. I actually got one more: Gore told me that Juls (Josephine’s sister) is currently not working, but being at home and ‘growing her baby’. This could mean that she is pregnant and her baby is growing inside of her, but Lewis is about 8 months old. What Gore meant to say is that Juls is at home taking care of the baby, raising him, ensuring that he grows. ‘Growing her baby’, now, that is real cute!
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chibole on Oct 12, 2009 at 11:32AM

just read your piece from Uganda. wow! have not traveled yet but I am organizing for one. I have to get a good motorbike that will enable me travel and write.


hope I will read from you again soon

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