Local linguistics

16 04 2012

Apparently tourism is booming in Zimbabwe. You could have fooled me – there certainly aren’t legions of backpackers about because I would have noticed them. Well this gem of optimism is according to The Herald newspaper which is renowned for being upbeat without too much reason. Maybe it’s something to do with the impending Independence Day on Wednesday when we all HAVE to be upbeat and thankful for 32 years of misrule. No doubt our esteemed President, Robert Mugabe, will do his usual rant at the National Sports Stadium, everyone else will be blamed for our woes and the solitary remaining air force jet will fly over. Now I have seen that! It was practising on Saturday while I was a the orchid show. Well I guess that I’ll do my bit for the imminent horde of tourists and give them a bit of free advice on everyday etiquette so pay attention all you potential visitors.

It is essential when greeting a Zimbabwean to ask how he/she is even if you are not vaguely interested. In fact this is so ingrained that it is common to be asked “How are you” to which you reply “Fine” (I mean what else are you going to say? Do you honestly think they want to hear about your troubles?) and then the other person will also say “Fine” without you actually asking anything. I have on occasion replied “Terrible” but that only creates confusion and, God forbid, they might want to know what is wrong.

Of course if you are on familiar terms with the other person you can just say “Howzit” which doesn’t actually require any meaningful answer except for another “Howzit”. It’s at this point that my mother would have said “What do they mean, howzit?” and I would reply “It’s actually a contraction of  how is it going”. “How is WHAT going?” she would reply. “What exactly is IT?”. “Well, I guess it’s really just a salutation” I’d respond. I didn’t know any French at that stage to reply that “Comment ça va?” is exactly the equivalent of “Howzit going?” not that it would have helped explain much but it would have at least been witty.

The uninitiated should be warned that all this applies to phone conversations too. You will be made to feel more than a little awkward if you just say “Hello, I wonder if you could help me with…” without going through the “How are you” formality.

For everyday conversations the above introduction will suffice but if you REALLY want to make a good impression you should ask how the family is or how are things at work or home. This is considered VERY polite! Asking how work is going is of course safer because there are the occasional difficult people who don’t have a family, myself included. I’m not sure what the response would be to “My dog is very well thank you”. Maybe I should try it.

It’s pretty much straightforward after this so I will introduce a bit of vocabulary that is peculiar to Zimbabwe. There is a lot of local slang based on English, Afrikaans, Shona and Ndebele but the following are considered essential.

Dhoro – beer. Essential this. The “h” signifies that the D is a hard one. O is pronounced as in or.
Braai – barbecue. Another essential. Braai has Afrikaans origins and is an abbreviation of braaivleis – literally to roast meat.
Eish (pronounced “eeesh”) – an expression of amazement thought it will do for just about any situation. Also of South African origin.

One last piece of advice; everyone is your friend. This predates Facebook by many years but if you ever need anything precede your request by “My friend…” and likely as not you will get what you need. Zimbabweans are a friendly lot and we have quite possibly the best weather in the world so come and visit. Don’t worry, there won’t be too many other tourists!

The respect thing

24 04 2010

Last year my nursery supplied some 40,000 seedlings to the informal street market – we were not paid. It’s most usually the security guards at the heart of the theft. We got most of the trays back but the evidence as seedlings was long gone and no arrests were ever made.

Earlier in March I was on the way to the airport with Sybille when I got a text from the senior foreman saying that another 12 trays of onions had gone missing. There was little I could do at that stage but when I got back from surgery and another theft, onions again but now 22 trays, occurred I put the suspected guard in the truck and left him at the local police station to be “interviewed”. A few days later I asked the investigating constable if anything had happened. She asked me if there was any evidence left!

I recounted this story to Charles a black manager on the farm where I live and asked what he did. He laughed. They’d had a similar problem with the security guards on the potatoes so he took them off to the police station for a night’s stay and a good hiding (his words) and warned them if there was any more nonsense they’d go back for another hiding. I commented that as a white I would not get away with that (and I have to admit I’m a bit squeamish about it). I repeated the story to a white farmer that afternoon and he said that while he would not do anything himself he just gives the police a bag of potatoes and they do the dirty business.

Some years ago I was working in Malawi for UNDP and was astounded when one of my highly educated black colleagues told me that she didn’t think Africa was well suited to democracy. I had to admit that after giving a bit of thought I was not so sure she was wrong. It is no secret that Africans respect the “strong man” which, unlike the conclusion of the “Witness” BBC podcast on the Zimbabwe independence and “liberation war” I listened to, is the reason why Bob is still in charge.