Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Tuesday, November 10, 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.

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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!

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