Abby and I have spent most of November in Nairobi. It has been a nice change of pace. A missionary friend of ours is back in the states, so we are staying at their house and watching over things, especially Paco, their beloved Chihuahua.
Paco is a peculiar little dog. He is old, highly emotional, and very spastic (he also hasn’t been bathed in awhile and I’m not trying given his moodiness). When we first arrived, he wanted nothing to do with us, and was on a hunger strike probably because of depression. It only took a few days for him to warm up and now he especially loves Abby.
Paco is one of those dogs that gets so excited that he wags his whole butt and not just his tail. If Abby says his name, the abundant joy in him keeps him from ever being still. He rolls around and when he tries to stand, his body is moving in so many directions at once that he often stumbles over. A couple times we thought he was going to fall right off the couch.
But this post isn’t about Paco, as much excitement as he brings. It is about our Swahili studies. That is why we’ve been staying in Nairobi. When we first arrived in Kenya, we were fairly studious, but as many missionaries can testify, it is easy to get wrapped up in the ministry. Since the busy summer months of guests and teams, it has been hard to get back into the habit of studying. So we loaded up the car and ran away.
We also decided to hire a tutor. We had a plan of personal studies in the morning and then our tutor would come in the afternoon to converse and answer questions. We were connected to a pastor who has worked with other missionaries as a possible good fit. I think we learned more about culture than the language.
Like most Kenyans, our tutor showed a great level of kindness and he was exploding with enthusiasm to teach. As the lessons progressed though, it became clear that there was going to be a challenge because of the different ways the culture has taught us to see the world. As a short example, he was teaching us a new verb tense and after 45 minutes of him trying to explain has to use it, we gave up. The next evening we had dinner with a couple American friends and they explained it in less than 2 minutes.
Here’s what we learned:
“Saving face” is very much a part of Kenyan culture. Our tutor as the “expert” could never admit that he was wrong (avoiding embarrassment) and he always had to have an answer (often seen as being polite). He was doing an exercise in vowel sounds that was very different from U.S. kindergarten methods (probably because he was making it up as he went). When I asked him about some inconsistencies in the way he was teaching, he ended up trying to say that the capital B in Baba makes it a different word a different pronunciation than baba. Both mean father and are pronounced baw-baw.
Now I understand why people will agree to proposed plans only to call 30 minutes later and cancel when they knew the whole time they were busy; why a store clerk will tell you to come back tomorrow for a product they do not have in stock and then a month later they still do not have it; and why one day Abby and I drove across town (in city traffic) to look at a car after calling the salesman to confirm the appointment, just to show up for the guy to tell us that the owner was gone with it for 2 days more days in another part of the country.
Abby and I also learned that Kenyans rarely ask why. Being inquisitive is engrained in the American psyche. We are taught to seek to know more and to explore the world. We are individuals. Kenyans are much more communal. Group identity and collective knowledge are important for unity. Traditionally knowledge is passed down from the elders and that is just the way things are. It doesn’t matter why an apple falls when dropped. You just have to know that it does.
We learned this whole thing about asking why about 2 weeks after we let our tutor go, but it explains why he would so often struggle with our why questions. In the moment, I was often thinking, “he just took 5 minute to basically say, that is just how it is.” Now I know it is because he probably never thought about a lot of the questions I was asking before that moment. Grammar doesn’t matter. You just speak that way because that is how it is.
Even the day we let our tutor go, we spent over an hour trying to explain why. We wanted him to leave knowing that we appreciated the many good teaching qualities, but that the culture barrier was too much to overcome (I have a new respect for cross-cultural language teachers). Around and around we went.
The more reasons we gave for why the tutoring sessions were not working, the more he tried to give any reason he could think of for us to keep paying him. His inability for him to fully understand why we were letting him go was just more reason for us to let him him go in our minds. Eventually we just said here is your pay and an extra day to be nice, don’t come back tomorrow. In reality, that was what we should have done from the beginning. Just as Kenyans do not ask why, they do not really care to know why. Explaining why just left the door open for him to try and explain.
Our tutor did not get us and we did not get him. I am sure small cultural misunderstandings like this happen everyday, but the hours of constant interaction made them more obvious. Our 2 day tutor may not of helped us very much in Swahili, but he taught us a lot about Kenyan mindset and added a little humor along the way.