Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Letter from Butiama: Everything is new

As Tanzanians wait eagerly for newly-elected President John Magufuli to unveil his new cabinet in the next few days, I share an old article I wrote over ten years ago when Tanzanians, in quite similar circumstances, were attempting to make sense of newly-elected President Jakaya Kikwete's campaign slogan.

The article, from my column "Letter from Butiama", was published in the Sundays News of 15 January 2015.


There are an overwhelming number of new names that Tanzanians have to begin to get used to. We have a newly elected president and we still have to get used to hearing “President Kikwete”; we have a new former president, and I was amused recently to hear someone say “Mzee Mkapa”, suggesting that only former presidents deserve that title; there is the new cabinet with new ministers and ministries.

What is probably not as new is President Jakaya Kikwete’s campaign slogan which first surfaced during the campaign period and left me, as one who writes in English, caught totally unprepared.

Ever since I first heard the slogan, I have attempted to translate it into English and it hasn’t been a pleasant exercise. It leaves me, as an English-language columnist with a sense that this government feels that English-language journalists should put in more hours of work than their Kiswahili-language colleagues. It is quite clear where the priorities of the administration lie. Kiswahili is on the rise while English is in for a rough five years, at the very least.

The Swahili words of the slogan, ari mpya, nguvu mpya, kasi mpya, which now has become a rallying call and is entering the day-to-day conversation of ordinary Tanzanians, convey pretty straightforward meanings. From a political standpoint the phrase has a clear and unambiguous meaning.

My interpretation of the slogan is an affirmation by a presidential aspirant and, later, presidential candidate that, once he gets hold of the steering wheel, he will apply  a little more power behind the engine of a car which is already in motion. Or was he, perhaps, thinking of fitting-in a new turbo-charged 12 cylinder monster of an engine to the vehicle? It would still amount to the same effect, just a difference of the power applied. The point, as I understood it, is he is looking at adding some impetus to a process that is already in motion. Any person, who understands Kiswahili and understands something about the political process, will undoubtedly understand the general intended meaning of the slogan.

The problem with language is that we always try to find the equivalent meanings in other languages, but sometimes it is not easy. I have heard a non-Tanzanian translate mapinduzi in Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) with the English word “revolution”, and so CCM to him was the Revolutionary Party. The images I get of a party that has “revolutionary” as part of its name is one that has spent years waging a war against an occupying force, with the AK-47 assault rifle as its weapon of choice. I suggested that the translation could have been improved.

In English ari is also zeal, enthusiasm, eagerness, initiative, and spirit, while kasi is less ambiguous and is the equivalent of speed. It is when I looked up the English equivalent of nguvu that I was left with a feeling that this administration probably wants English-language columnists to spend more time doing their homework. Nguvu is also force, power, strength; it can be authority, or supremacy; and it can be impetus, pressure, or solidarity.

The Swahili version of the slogan has a neat rhythmic sound to it. In English, depending on the words you use, the slogan can sound awkward, and produce an equally awkward meaning. From the several equivalent English translations provided of ari, nguvu, and kasi consider, “New (or is it renewed?) zeal, new pressure, and new speed”. I admit that translators and interpreters will, and probably already have, made a tidy sensible equivalent slogan in English.

Although, as I said, I feel excluded, I feel it is perfectly all right because the intended audience of the slogan is Tanzanian and Tanzanians understand Kiswahili better than any other language. Those who don’t understand Kiswahili can go to Kiswahili language schools. And those writers who do not want to spend too much time translating can switch to other subjects. To me it’s not even necessary to translate the slogan into English.

Perhaps a lesson can be learnt from the French. I know that one aspect of their culture that the French will defend, especially against English, to the last survivor is their language.

For all the love they have for their language I learnt from a fellow Tanzanian student in Canada, more than twenty years ago, that there is an English name that the French continued to use in speech: hot dog, that hot sausage enclosed as a sandwich in a roll of bread, the archetypal American food.

He told me that while the French in France continued to order their “hotdogs” using the original American name, the irony was that in Canada some staunch French Canadians from the province of Quebec would not have a single word of English in their discourse, and so to them the hot dog was chien chaud, literally “hot dog” – in French!

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The government should ban male drivers on passenger buses

Sometime last year a passenger bus on the Mwanza - Musoma highway overtook a car I was driving and hardly ten seconds later smashed head-on against another oncoming bus. Death toll 12 and scores injured.

There are many character differences between males and females and I believe one of these might be the solution for avoiding, or at least reducing, road accidents on Tanzania's roads. The male drivers who sit behind the wheels of the country's passenger buses do not appear to care about the safety of the passengers they drive. The principal concern of most of these drivers is how fast they can drive from point A to point B and any consideration that the excessive speeds they are used to might prevent anyone from reaching point B is hidden or eludes their intellectual capacity and collective experiences.

Women are different in how preoccupied they are inclined to preserve rather than to end a life, particularly if its someone else's life. I have seen a photograph of a woman who having walked for days from a hunger-stricken area reached a relief camp with her child on her back. She died on a crouched position on all fours because she did not want to crush her child strapped on her back. The malnourished child survived.
Over speeding was the cause of this bus, plying between Tarime and Mwanza, to veer off the road near Mwanza on 18th October 2012. Fortunately, no serious injuries were reported.
I was once approached by a woman whose husband had lost all his property to con men including an oxen plough that could have provided cash by hiring to farmers. He was ashamed to beg from neighbours for food; she, rather than see her children starve, walked more than twenty kilometres to ask for my assistance.

When the ill-fated bus overtook us I told the passenger sitting next to me how dangerous it was to drive on the unpaved road at a high speed and I slowed down to allow the dust ahead of us to clear up. When it did, hardly ten seconds later, we saw debris on the road and the bus that overtook us was lying on the ditch on the left side while the other bus it had struck was in the same position on the right side of the road. One passenger was attempting to get out of one of the bus windows.

The point at which both buses struck each other told the whole story; they were both severely damaged on the drivers' sides. Having seen most of what happened I could tell that either one or both of the bus drivers had strayed too far inside the opposite lane. To make matters worse that section of the road was under rehabilitation and any car ahead kicks up so much dust as to reduce visibility to a very short distance. A truck driven in the opposite direction minutes before the impact had exacerbated the already poor visibility. The driver of the bus that overtook us was driving at an excessive speed in a dust cloud and  without a clue of the whereabouts of incoming traffic that was approaching from the opposite direction.

There is another issue that should be tackled when addressing the incessant bus accidents on Tanzania's roads.  Most of the drivers on Tanzania's roads obtain their driving licences even before they learn how to drive. After driving behind a car from a driving school with a student driver and instructor on the road and having being signaled to overtake on a blind spot, I can also conclude there are probably few driving schools that actually impart even the most basic driving skills.

My point is that even the worst women bus driver in Tanzania will not drive blindly in a dust storm at more than 100 kilometres per hour without having a clear vision of the road ahead. Men will continue overtaking where they should not and continue risking the lives of other passengers without an iota of concern that things do not always go as planned.

Banning male bus passenger drivers will most certainly reduce bus accidents.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Kenyan mother names son "Air Force One"

This could be old news to Kenyans, but it came to my attention only recently.

When I read recently that a mother in Kenya named his son Air Force One, born during President Barack Obama's visit to Kenya I thought that was odd. Odd, but culturally understandable.

Throughout African societies, naming tradition is influenced by significant events. And if a Kenyan parent decides that a US president's visit is significant, she has every right to think so. In Tanzania Chausiku is the name given to girls born at night. The name Abidemi in Yoruba is given to a child born during the father's absence. Esi in Akan means born on Sunday.

So if a mother gave birth as Air Force One was touching down at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport recently we might raise eyebrows on the choice of name, but as far as African naming tradition goes, it is perfectly in order.

So I was surprised to learn that some Kenyans squirmed and cringed in reaction when a Kenyan news anchor ululated as she introduced President Barack Obama and his host President Uhuru Kenyatta at a Nairobi meeting.

Julie Gichuru of Citizen TV ululated, as many Africans do on festive occasions, as she ceded the floor to President Obama and her action drew some criticism from some Kenyans. I suspect it reminded these critics that Kenyans were Kenyans; that Africans are Africans. And that act, to those who embrace and extol other cultures, was the the most damaging act she could have projected to a world-wide audience.

The interesting part is that anyone who watches American audiences will notice that, they too, utilise a form of ululation, as a positive reaction to speakers, and at sporting events.

Not surprisingly, besides the criticism, I have seen some praise for her high-pitched welcome from other Kenyans.