Sunday, May 30, 2010

Learning Swahili

Diane and I got a very good start with Swahili during the three-week intensive language course that we did when we first arrived in Tanzania. Since then I've continued to make an effort to keep using and studying it.

There's a lot of good news for English speakers who want to learn Swahili. With only one or two exceptions the sounds are simple and familiar. (One of the odd sounds I know from my parents' dialect of Chinese!) The grammar has a lot of consistency and regularity. Even the exceptions often have a kind of pattern to them. Almost always the stressed syllable in a word is the next to last one. Writing is in the same alphabet as English, minus "q" and "x". The spelling is completely phonetic and a breeze to master. Very often I can hear a word I don't know and am able to find it in a dictionary on the first try (think about that for someone who is learning English -- our spelling is horribly complicated and difficult).

But there's some serious bad news as well. 8-D Nouns, adjectives, modifiers, and verbs are all heavily inflected, that is, the words change form. One way this is done is in singular versus plural. That's not so bad since we have that distinction in English. But the other way hinges on "noun classes", of which there are seven. Each noun class has its own ways for forming inflections.

The modifiers include some -- but not all -- of the numbers. For example, the word for "two" has a different prefix depending on whether you are talking about persons, shoes, oranges, trees, or peppers, for which "two" is then "wawili", "viwili", "mawili", "miwili", and "mbili", respectively. Verbs are similarly inflected depending on the noun class of the subject and of the object, if any.

Taken individually, each noun class appears to be manageable. But trying to keep all of them straight in actual conversation rapidly overloads my linguistic abilities and slow brain. Even a short sentence can easily contain, say, three nouns that belong to three different classes. For instance: "Those two people bought these two sweet oranges and two large peppers". Proper Swahili requires every one of those words to be formed correctly (except for "and"). Sigh.

The noun classes are enough of a difficulty that our Swahili course intentionally avoided spending much attention on them in order not to get bogged down. Our teachers gave us some good reference materials and sent us on our way. With hindsight I see that was a wise thing to do. With practice I am slowly, slowly, beginning to get the inflections right.

As someone who is not especially adept at learning languages, especially conversation, I find that I have to do two things. First, overcome my shyness and embarrassment, and keep using Swahili. Maintain the ability to laugh at myself and accept that for a long time to come I am going to come across as a complete idiot. Second, continue to explicitly study: vocabulary, grammar, usage, whatever. As an adult I am not going to "pick up" Swahili merely by being surrounded by it. But I do know from past experience that persistence pays off. Looking back to ten months ago when we landed I do see that I have made progress. I really am learning an African language. -Earl

Later: A week after posting this, I showed it to a Tanzanian friend who pointed out a mistake with one of the nouns that I used. This just proves my point that the inflections are easy to get wrong. 8-D

Saturday, May 22, 2010


In Earl’s earlier post, you’ll see a photo of Moris & me. And I bet you do not know what we are doing. If you look carefully, you’ll see I am holding something in my hand. In Kiswahili it’s a ‘korosho’ – a cashew nut! And Moris was showing us the traditional way of roasting cashews.

Did you know that in the mid-1970’s Tanzania and Mozambique were the main global producers of cashew nuts? According to the Agricultural Council of Tanzania (, Tanzania was producing 145,000 metric tons of raw nuts in 1974 and in 1998 Tanzania was still producing 121,000 metric tons. Unfortunately, nowadays the production has been below the 1998 peak.

Tanzania has been mainly exporting raw nuts and in 2006 only 20% were processed locally. This is because of the difficulty of cashew processing. Did you know that cashews are in the same family as poison ivy & poison sumac? The cashew plant contains powerful chemical irritants and handling and eating raw cashews will cause the familiar itchy skin reaction in sensitive people. However, the irritants are found in the shell oil, not in the nuts themselves.

According to Don Glass on "A Moment of Science"
(, this is why they’re sold shelled, but why are they roasted? Roasting at high temperature destroys the shell oil, so commercially sold nuts will not trigger a reaction. Cashew nuts that are still in the shell or that are shelled and roasted at home at lower temperatures may be contaminated with the oil, so, shelling raw cashews is about as much fun as handling poison ivy. Isn't that interesting!

Well, in the bottom-center of the collage, Benjamin, a neighbor, is preparing the open fire. Actually, I think at that moment, the cashew nuts are on fire in the pot! On Benjamin's left, there is a photo of the cashew apple as it is picked from the tree. Attached to the bottom of the cashew apple is a kidney-shaped shell that contains the cashew nut. Above Benjamin’s photo, you’ll see Moris & his wife, Lucy, roasting the cashews in the smokey pot. The little girl in the pink dress on the left is their daughter, Dorith. Unfortunately, Exsavery, their son, missed this photo op. Then there’s the close-up of Moris & me cracking the nutshells. What looks like a pile of charcoal on the ground is actually a pile of charred cashew nutshells. We gobbled up the fresh roasted cashews you see in the container. Yum!

Earl & I love cashews and we are delighted that we are living along the Swahili Coast where fresh cashews are a year-round treat!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Our Wazungu Monthly Living Expenses

Since we posted our friend Moris' monthly expenses recently, which is probably not atypical of what many of our Tanzanian neighbors live on, Diane and I thought that for comparison we would also post what our monthly expenses are.

The following list consists of amounts averaged over the first few months of 2010. There were a couple of large, one-time expenditures, including purchase of an inkjet printer. But it gives you the idea of how big the difference is.

Again, the currency symbol for the Tanzanian shilling is /= which is exchanging at about 1300/= to U.S. $1.

Groceries 186,000/=
Eating out 47,000/=
Transportation 18,000/=
Household & electricity 37,000/=
Health & medical 20,000/=
Stationery & postage 14,000/=
Books & newspapers 21,000/=
Clothes & haircuts 9,000/=
Church 6,000/=
Donations & gifts 29,000/=
Internet & computer 145,000/=
Domestic help 43,000/=
Cellphone 15,000/=
Recreation 1,000/=

Total 591,000/=

Moris currently does not have a contract so his list is for survival. I'm pretty sure that if he were generating more income he would also be spending quite a bit more. Nevertheless, at the moment our expenses are about nine times greater per month than his are.

On the other hand, our total is about equal to U.S. $450. That's only a bit beyond what we were paying just for groceries alone in San Francisco. -Earl

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Day Life in the Life of Our Tanzanian Friend

Pictured here with Diane is our fellow parishioner Moris whom we met at the church where we live. Moris has become a good friend to us. Moreover, he is a very good informant about things Tanzanian, speaks English well, and knows how to correct my bumbling Swahili.

Diane had the idea of asking Moris to write a bit about his daily life and his family. So he wrote something in Swahili, then he and I together edited it and translated it into English.

We are posting both the Swahili and the English here. The notes in brackets are mine. -Earl
Maisha Yangu (familia)

Morris Damiani Chenga ndilo jina langu. Nilizaliwa mwaka 1970 terehe 22-12-1970. Mpaka sasa nina umri wa miaka (40) arobaini.

Nina watoto wawili na mke mmoja. Mtoto wangu Exsavery ana umri wa miaka 11. Alizaliwa Zahanati ya Ziwani mwaka 1999 mwezi wa tatu. Anasoma Darasa la tano katika shule ya Lilungu Manispaa ya Mtwara.

Dorith ni mtoto wangu wa pili. Alizaliwa tarehe 21-2-2003 katika hospitali ya Ligula saa 5:18. Sasa anasoma Darasa la kwanza. Anasoma shule sawa na kaka yake.

Lucy mke wangu pia anamiaka arobaini. Alizaliwa tarehe 25/9/1970. Anafanya kazi ya kufundisha watoto wadogo Mauntsore. Alisoma katika Shule ya Luagala.

Mimi mwenyewe Moris Damiani nilisoma mpaka Darasa la 7 toka mwaka 1979-1985. Nilifaulu kuendelea kidato cha kwanza. Nilisoma kidato cha kwanza na cha pili lakini wazazi wangu hawakuwa na uwezo wa kunilipia ada ya shule kwa kidato cha tatu na nne, kwa sababu mwaka ule zao la korosho halikuzaa korosho.

Nimekuwa nikifanya vibarua na kazi za mikataba kama mtunzaji wa nyumba kwa muda wa miaka 12 sasa. Kwa kipindi hiki sina kazi. Huwa nafanya vibarua kazi za kujitafutia chakula na mahitaji muhimu ya binadamu. Kila kukicha natafuta kazi ya kufanya.


Ninaamka saa 11.30 hasubuhi kila siku. Ninaoga saa 11.45 na kujianda kwenda kanisani. Ninasaidia kusoma masomo na kazi nyingine za kanisani. Misa inaanza saa 12.30 hasubuhi. Namaliza ibada saa 1.00 hasubuhi. Saa 1.10 hasubuhi ninampeleka Dorith shuleni kwa sababu ya barabara kuu ya Dar-es-salamu. Ninamwacha shule saa 1.15. Narudi nyumbani ninaangalia kamakuna chai au uji. Ninakunywa na ninaanza kutafuta kazi ya kufanya ili nipate chakula. Kama ninapata fedha ninarudi nyumbani kuangalia chakula cha mchana. Saa 10.00 jioni ninaangalia watoto kanisani. Huwa nawafundisha kuhudumu wakati wa misa siku ya juma pili. Siku ya jumanne ninakwenda kwenye jumuia. Mimi ni katibu wa jumuia. Pia ni mwenyekiti wa vijana wa kanisa yaani Vijana Wafanyakazi Wakatoliki au (VIWAWA).

Mahitaji yangu ya chakula kwa mwezi kama ifuatavyo.

(1) Mchele kg 10 sawa na 13,000/=
(2) Unga wa mahindi kg 9 sawa na 9000/=
(3) Sukari kg 4 sawa 6000/=
(4) Mkaa mifuko 3 sawa 9000/=
(5) Mafuta ya kula lita 3 sawa 5400/=
(6) Mafuta ya taa lita 5 sawa 5500/=
(7) Viberiti kasha 1 sawa 400/=
(8) Pesa ya maji kwa mwezi sawa 1500/=
(9) Exsavery na Dorith pesa ya ada ya shule , kwa mwaka
1) Exsavery 7000/=
2) Dorith 7000/=
Michango ya ulinzi kwa wote 5000/= kwa mwaka
Wakati mwengine hela ya shuleni @ 100/= kila siku x 5, 1000/= kwa wiki moja, 4500/= kwa mwezi.

Mahitaji ya sabuni ya kuogea vipande 5 x 250/= = 1250/=
Sabuni ya kufulia kg 4 6000/=

Mahitaji haya ndiyo ninayohitaji kwa mwezi. Najitahidi kutafuta kazi kuweza kumudu maisha, lakini wakati mwingine nashindwa kupata mahitaji haya yote.

My Life and Family

Moris Damian Chenga is my name. I was born in 1970 on 22 of December. Now my age is 40.

I have two children and one wife. Exsavery is eleven years old. He was born at Ziwani Dispensary in March 1999. He is studying Standard 5 [fifth year of primary school] at Lilungu Municipal School of the town of Mtwara.

Dorith is my second child. She was born 21 of February, 2003, at Ligula Hospital at 11:18 in the morning. Now she is studying Standard 1. She is studying at the same school as her brother.

My wife Lucy is also 40 years old. She was born 25 of September, 1970. She works teaching small children at a Montessori school. She studied at Luagala College [near Nyangao].

I myself Moris Damian studied up to Standard 7 from 1979 to 1985 [at Chikunja Primary School in Masasi]. I passed the exam to continue with Form One [first year of secondary school]. I studied Forms 1 and 2 but my parents did not have the means to pay the school fees for Forms 3 and 4, because that year their cashew crop did not bear fruit.

I have been doing manual labor on contract as a domestic worker for the past twelve years now. At this time I do not have work. Usually I do some manual work so as to find food and essential needs for human beings. Every day I look for work to do.


I wake up at 5:30 in the morning each day. I bathe at 5:45 and get ready to go to church. I help with reading the readings and other work at the church. Mass starts at 6:30 a.m. I finish the Mass at 7:00. At 7:10 I take Dorith to school because of the main road to Dar es Salaam [which has much traffic]. I leave her at school at 7:15. I return home and see whether there is chai [tea with sugar] or uji [porridge made from corn flour]. I drink it and I start to look for work to do so that I can get food. If I get money I return home to look for lunch. At 4:00 in the afternoon I look after children at church. Usually this is me teaching them to [altar] serve during Mass on Sundays. Tuesdays I go to the community ["small Christian community", groups of which the parish has several]. I am secretary of the community. Also, I am chair of the church youth, that is, the Young Catholic Workers (VIWAWA).

My food needs per month as follows.

[The currency symbol for the Tanzanian shilling is /= which is at about 1300/= to U.S. $1]

(1) White rice, 10 kg, 13,000/=
(2) Maize flour, 9 kg, 9000/=
(3) Sugar, 4 kg, 6000/=
(4) Charcoal, 3 bags, 9000/=
(5) Cooking oil, 3 liters, 5400/=
(6) Kerosene, 5 liters, 5500/=
(7) Matches, 1 package, 400/=
(8) Water expense per month, 1500/=
(9) Money for school fees for Exsavery and Dorith, per year,
1) Exsavery, 7000/=
2) Dorith, 7000/=
Contribution for security [school watchmen] for both, 5000/= per year
Other monies for school, @ 100/= per day x 5, 1000/= per week, 4500/= per month

Soap needed for bathing, 5 pieces x 250/=, 1250/=
Soap for washing, 4 kg, 6000/=

These necessities are what I need each month. I try to make sure that I find work to be able to support life, but at times I fail to get all these necessities.

Some time ago we started to hire Moris to do weekly food shopping trips and other errands for us. When we asked him to write about himself he also brought back to us several letters of reference. An excerpt of one of those letters follows. -Earl

I am writing to recommend Morris Damian for employment. Morris worked for me for two years (2004-2006), cleaning the house and washing clothes. Morris is a very reliable and trustworthy employee. Furthermore, he is an ethical and honorable person. I have recommended him to many other Peace Corps volunteers in the course of my two years of service, and have heard only praise regarding Morris work from these colleagues.

... I consider myself very fortunate to have had Morris in my life, as a friend and employee, and am all too happy to advocate for him.