Some Things Simply Don’t Translate…

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As I continue to strengthen my Kiswahili skills, one thing I have noticed is that some things simply don’t translate (yes, I already mentioned the title in the first sentence…)

Everyone likes to speak in their own words. If you like to inundate others with an eclectic amalgamation of verbosity from your meticulously selected vernacular then be my guest. If you’re to the point, short and sweet works too. (btw… & 4 those who like 2 txt, ttyl or w/e.) Now, I like to talk in my own way just as much as the next person but while learning Kiswahili I’ve come to understand that some words are used differently in different cultures. And these differences actually reflect upon the cultures themselves quite accurately.

Before I get into my comparison between (American) English and Kiswahili, I wanted to share a few words in English that we use differently amongst ourselves. I figure I am fixing to talk about some words we like to use in the Southern states. For some of you, the previous sentence seems relatively normal. But to others, you’re probably wondering what I’m “figuring” and what I am about to “fix.” We like to use these words to show that we are in the process of something. In my opinion, we use such words because we like to appreciate not solely the beginnings and ends but the way in which those points meet…while we are figuring how to connect them together. But to those of you to whom these phrases are foreign, they still might seem like impractical uses without much rhyme or reason. They just don’t make sense with the way your understanding of the language exists. This is similar to an experience I have had during my time here in Tanzania.




These phrases each literally mean, “I have to/I must,” “I think” and “I hope” respectively. And they are actually used in completely different ways between English and Kiswahili. Think about it, when do you use the phrase, “I have to?” I have to go to the store today. I have to watch the football game this weekend. I must go home now. Is it really that much of a necessity? Or do we just over-dramaticize (yes, I’m aware this isn’t an actual word…but if the shoe fits) every action in our lives as a life or death moment? One thing I have learned in Tanzania, although it has been a hard lesson to learn, is that we (either as in ourselves or our society) invent this necessity out of nothing and the world does actually go on if something we “had to do” doesn’t get finished. For me, this has provided me with the time (instead of the time that I was “having” to do something) to reflect on what truly should/must I do in and with my life. Maybe even in these few minutes that your eyes glance over this blog, you’ll find just a second or two to reflect on what you “have” to do today as well…? And actually, I believe we use the “have to” excuse to get out of things. “Oh I’d love to come to dinner but I have to wash my dog tonight.” “Well, I have to go now.” Do you? What if we went a little out of our comfort zones and stuck around a little longer?…Showed up to a place we were invited too but they assumed we had better things to do?…Found those people who mean the most to us and spend out-of-the-ordinary time with them just because they’re them!? I think a readjustment of our “haves” in life could very well be the antidote we’re searching for in the quest for more meaning in life? Isn’t it where two or more are gathered in God’s name that God is there in the midst of them? Please, you just HAVE to take a moment and think about what you “have” to do today…and why?

I think we’ll move on to the next one now. “Ninafikiri” is “I think” or “I am thinking” which we use in 2 different ways now through the English language. “I am thinking” is used to show consideration over something or the involvement of using one’s mind. But when we use “I think,” it generally refers to uncertainty which is becoming commonplace in our youth today. (Not necessarily “uncertainty” but the use of “I think”…but come to think of it…maybe it is both!) Why can’t we just give a straightforward answer? Why are we afraid to be certain about things? Are we afraid of being wrong? Are we afraid of losing some status in someone’s else’s opinion? I think we should stop saying “I think” so much. (Did anyone catch that?… how about this–>) We should stop saying “I think” so much. Let’s be honest with those around us and honest with ourselves and speak from the heart exactly what is on our mind. Sure, crossing the bridge of honest is difficult and painful at first but the other side is where we truly want to be. One thing that I have learned here is that they don’t “think” about an answer. They just give one. It might be right …it might be wrong. But it’s their answer and they’re happy to share it. They are also quite honest. After returning from my sister’s wedding and some quality time with Allison, one church member’s first comment to me was, “Welcome back! You are fatter than before!” It wasn’t the jovial welcoming I was expecting but they are also a lot less weight conscience here too… From spending a lot of time with youth in the States and spending a lot of time with youth here I see a tremendous difference in self-confidence and self-worth. Now there’s always a little bit of that nervous teenager inside all of them but here they are encouraged to speak up and making mistakes is okay. We just laugh it off and move forward. And that was actually the advice from my Swahili teacher when I studied abroad in Kenya in 2007. He encouraged us to go to the market or eat in town and practice using our Swahili. When we mess up people will laugh in our faces not to insult us but rather in joy that we’re trying and made a simple error. Then they will proceed to correct us so we understand our mistake. What are we encouraging our youth to do and be in America? Speak quietly with a slight uncertainty so that if what they’re saying is wrong, hopefully no one will notice? I believe this is affecting their own attitudes and perceptions of themselves and it’s only getting worse. What we need to do, what we HAVE to do (and yes, we “have” to) is reach out and encourage our younger generations. Help them to see that making mistakes and asking questions are okay if we continue to improve and learn from them. Help them to know that they are still human just as much as any millionaire and just as loved by God as ANY other person on this entire planet! They need to hear it and they need to hear it from me and from you. After working a youth minister position in a church for the past few years, I’ve seen the great need for solid volunteers and role models for our youth. Not just to set the example for the youth but to actually reach down and help build the youth from the ground up. Give them the confidence they deserve not to answer questions timidly with a meek “I think” but rather a confident “Yes” or “No” or “Maybe/maybe not but here’s why!” (There’s an interesting and humorous bit about the current generation’s language that worth a watch. The guy is pretty straightforward but issues good points. Here he is, Taylor Mali, on YouTube Again, none of this will change for the better if it continues to be something we “think” and “talk” about…but not do. This is an issue that is ever so prevalent in our society and it’s about time we return from “I think” to “I am thinking.” What do you think?

I know what you’re thinking… You hope this silly blog just has to finish soon. But nonetheless we still have one more “Lost in Translation” moment to divulge. I don’t mean to be bashing our American English to pieces; I just wish we would use it to its fullest potential. Another phrase we tend to dumb down is “I hope.” Consider the different ways you have used “I hope” lately? I hope the Panthers have a better season this year. I hope we have fried okra for dinner. I hope I make an A on that paper from last week. I hope to be a doctor some day. I hope you have a great day. I hope that God’s love continues to be shared around our world. What’s the difference between the first 3 “hopes” and the second 3 “hopes?” Which set do you use more often? Now it isn’t that those first hopes are bad but we seem to settle for less when it comes to what we could be hoping for in life. Here in Tanzania, I still haven’t heard (even among the Tanzanians speaking English) many of the first set of “hopes.”  During a church service I’ve heard the prayers of those hoping that other church members that are sick would soon be well again. All around me there is a hope that our faith is lived out in our words and actions and that God’s love can be seen through those very words and actions. The times I have heard “hope” here it actually sounded like the hope that I believe in. Hope is something real and tangible to Tanzanians. Hope isn’t petty or trivial but on the contrary the very essence of what guides us. It really puts life into good perspective when you consider what you hope in and where you spend most of your time hoping. Hebrews 11:1 says this:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

What is evident in your faith about the hopes in your life?

I hope that this blog has opened your eyes a little bit to the words that come out of our mouths.  I hope that you take the time to discern what you “have” to do and might not “have” to do. I hope that you find the opportunity to encourage those around you so we can concentrate more on thinking with our mind than mindlessly thinking with uncertainty. And I hope that you hope with a hope that doesn’t disappoint. Some things simply don’t translate… but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find other means of understanding them. Thanks for listening/reading…



(and yes, I used the title a second time…)


Lessons Learned from Letters…

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(written June 4, 2011)

So this past Saturday, I decided to take a look through some letters that members of St. John’s UMC wrote me last September before embarking on this adventure. Then I found more letters sent by various family, friends and supporters during my time here so far. After reading and contemplating this words of encouragement and support, I was humbled at the myriad of good advice and blessings!

Here are some of their words of wisdom:

“Let God be God”                                   “Listen for God’s Direction”

“Find your ministry in life and DO it!”          “Be safe!’

“You are:
God’s servant                              “Remember who you’re there for
In God’s place                                   and what you’re doing.”
In God’s time
For God’s purpose.”

“Have fun!”                                        “Don’t screw this up!” (thanks Will!)

They actually coincide well with my current reading (which happens to be one of Dr. Howell’s books, Saints, Misfits and Martyrs.) Reading about different saints, I’ve been confronted with the charge once again to seek a humble life. I heard a great riddle about humility. “Those that say they have it…usually don’t! And those that claim they don’t have it…usually do!”

I received my own special piece of humble pie on last Saturday morning during one of our church “work days.” We were placing blocks to form a staircase on the side of the church and, several times, someone interrupted my work to show me what I was doing wrong. And then, they finished my work. At first, I was becoming quite frustrated because I felt quite able to do the work since I’ve been on a number of mission trips building and repairing homes. And (some of them) their finished product looked just like my previously laid blocks…just done in a different way.

But then I began to think a little deeper as to why I was becoming so frustrated. Why did I strive so hard for ME to be the one to build it? Was I building it for God or for myself? What’s more important: that I finish a part of the church or that the church gets completed? My eyes were quickly opened and I became more compliant with the numerous interruptions that followed with my work. And if you think about it, isn’t the church supposed to be more focused on community and fellowship than individuality and personal triumph? The accomplishment of God’s church being built (by the people of God TOGETHER) is much more important than my own accomplishments. Let God be God. Remember who you’re there for and what you’re doing. Listen for God’s direction. Don’t screw up… but when you do (because it will happen) God’s grace and forgiveness are right there to pick up back up. Be safe! Have fun!

You, [insert your name here], are:
God’s servant
In God’s place
In God’s time
For God’s purpose.

Find your ministry in life
[whether Tanzania or your workplace, with children or the elderly,
serving friends and also complete strangers…but all done through God’s love]
… and DO it! 

(Thank you St. John’s UMC, friends and family, and others that have been praying for me. May we ALL live up to your words of wisdom!)

I’m a Grasshopper-Eatin’, Waterfall-Climbin’, Church-Buildin’ Tanzanian Redneck!

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(written end of May 2011)

Despite the way that time slowly drifts by here, I’ve been on the go…a lot! Next week we have a church mission team coming from Oklahoma (USA) so we’ve been having Saturday “work days” prepping the new sanctuary foundation for their arrival. We’ve cleaned a lot of brush around the church and placed the blocks for three of the four sets of steps surrounding the church. I spent one whole Saturday morning hauling buckets of dirt across the school yard to fill in the space in between steps and another Saturday mixing cement on the ground with a short spade shovel. (Mas Mezcla! shout out to the MPUMC youth who shared the joy of hand-mixing cement with me! I’ll be praying for you guys this week as you start out on your mission trips!) The first Saturday that we started the Saturday “work days” it was extremely overcast and extremely awesome…at first. What a perfect way to work while avoiding the Tanzanian heat until the sun peaked out from behind the clouds halfway through the morning. Just as we were getting into the grove of working, the sun appeared in full force and started toasting me quite effectively. Since I was in “the Zone” thinking about the work, the thought of stopping to put on sunscreen was far from crossing my mind. When we finished that afternoon… I felt it. A nice reddened face and, to make the white guy stand out even more, a red neck. I’m sure I’m not the first Tanzanian Redneck (nor the last…) but for now I’m definitely the ONLY one around these parts (or as you might say… over yonder.) But the work is fun and good for the soul and it’s rewarding to see God’s love being shared in the works of new classrooms and a new church sanctuary too!

Well, when I’m not teaching, worshiping, building or playing football/volleyball…I’m adventure-seeking! I stopped by the pastor’s house the other day and opened the door to a surprise. The night before we had joked about eating the large grasshoppers that were dominating the lights outside of the house. And here I stood before a bowl of tanned, crispy, black-eyed fried grasshoppers. They had reminded me of my comment from the night before and encouraged me to try some. So I did… and… they were good! Quite honestly they tasted like a Lay’s potato chip as odd as that sounds. Now, if I forget a meal, I can just go outside and compete with the free-range chickens for a light treat. (I hope the thought of eating grasshoppers doesn’t BUG you too much!)

But fried grasshoppers aren’t the only latest adventure. Last weekend, we were saying farewell to a friend of the pastor’s children and so we embarked on a hike to some “nearby” waterfalls. Now I have learned here that there’s no such thing as a “short” or “quick” trip here. But in order to persuade my fellow hikers, I adopted a phrase for the day, “bado kidogo.” (which means “a little bit more” or “not quite yet…”) Three hours later we arrived to an incredible series of 7 or 8 connected waterfalls ranging from 5 feet to 20 feet tall. We ate some snacks, took pictures and even swam some in the FRIGID mountain water. We even found some fresh guava fruit on the other side of the stream so had an additional treat. Eventually we returned home exhausted but satisfied. The month of May has surely been an interesting month with it’s handful of surprises. I hope your life is filled with unexpected joys and surprises as well.

Talk to Y’ALL later, ya hear?

Kanisa vs. Kanisani…

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I heard an intriguing sermon a few weeks ago. It was especially significant because of what was happening just outside of our classroom/church…

We are building a new “kanisa!” We’re building a new church!

The sermon was discussing the difference in “kanisa” and “kanisani” in the Kiswahili language. In a nutshell, “kanisani” is the actual building one goes into to worship God. (Ex… “Twende kanisani kumabudu Mungu.” Let’s go to the church to worship God.) “Kanisa” is the dwelling place of God (via the Holy Spirit) within one’s self and even amidst a community of believers. (Ex… “Sisi ni kanisa!” We are the church!) It is necessary to keep both our kanisani and kanisa in good working order if we want to truly live out our Christian faith honorably to God. But how do we do that?

To start, it’s helpful to frequently visit and use both! Then you know what’s in good condition and what could use some work. Both will also take time to improve and repair. I’ve learned that anything that’s worth ANYTHING, takes time…

Any kind of work is always better with good company. Fortunately, we’re blessed to have the opportunity to strengthen both our kanisa and kanisani alongside others. Friends and family to support us, comfort us, mourn with us, and yes, even call us out when the situation presents itself. God speaks to us on how to maintain our kanisa/kanisani through the Bible and our onsite supervisor, the Holy Spirit, doesn’t take sick days.

But let’s get practical here. How can/should we care for the kanisa inside of us? Regular and meaningful prayer time with God, reading Scripture, and worship are just a few ways to keep up the maintenance. Also serving and loving others does wonders for our spirit and daily perspective on life. John Wesley focused on 3 things when it came to maintaining his kanisa: Love God, Do Good, and Do No Harm. Are you able to center your life around these 3 simple rules?

So, kanisa and kanisani are different but still both important and vital to care for. The amazing, and yet daunting, beauty of kanisa is that it can’t be destroyed to pieces by others and taken from us without our participation in it’s destruction. Here lies our challenge: to not only strengthen the kanisa within each of us but protect it from our selfish desires to re-design it into a self-shrine.

God dwells within you. And you are God’s holy temple designed in God’s image. I was reading an email from a former Pastor and Co-worker of mine, Dr. James Howell, and here’s what he shared about being made in God’s image.

“God makes us in God’s own image.  Some think that means we enjoy the blessing of reason – but aren’t unreasonable people, or those who are debilitated with mental challenges, still in the image of God? Rusty Reno wisely defines this image as “the intrinsic spiritual dignity God has bestowed on humanity… making us capable of fellowship with God”; it is “the basis of our supernatural vocation, the capacity to do what God intends for us, greater than any possibility resident in our natural powers.”  But like some old coin, the image in us gets worn, blurred – so we need restoration work, or the “new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

   Made in the “image of God,” we are charged with divine responsibility:  to have dominion over the earth, to care for what God has made, not lording over like a petty potentate, not seizing the goods of the world for ourselves, but exercising faithful dominion, the way a parent guides a child, or a gardener tends to flowers, or a musician strives to capture the wonder of the moment the composer overheard something from the heavens.”

Therefore, being made in God’s image is a beautiful gift allowing for unity and communion with God. Being made in God’s image is also a great responsibility because it shows us that God has equipped us (and therefore has charged us) to care for the earth and the people within… including our own selves… our own kanisas. Based on this how might this affect your choices and actions in life? What’s the condition of your kanisa and what is next on your kanisa’s To-Do (or better yet…To-BE) list?

May your kanisa and your kanisani not gather dust but be used to the potential that IS there! We are created in God’s image and let’s not let it go to waste!

Sisi ni kanisa na twende kanisani kumabudu Mungu!

What Does YOUR Daladala say?

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“Trust no one, only Allah!”                                         “Neema ya Mungu” (Grace of God)

“Papa Benedict XVI”     “Bwana ndiye Mchumgaji Wangu” (The Lord is My Shepherd)

“OBAMA!”                                                                          “MANCHESTER UNITED!”

As I mentioned in a previous blog, a “daladala” is a mini-bus that we use here as public transportation. To ride a daladala, simply walk up to any major road (depending where you live this could take 5 minutes or 50 minutes!) or highway and hold out your hand. Within minutes a worn-out bus covered in bright colors (and some remaining Chinese characters on the side showing you their origin) pulls off the road right at your feet. Next thing you know, you’re crammed inside with at least 15 others headed into town. I admire the operators of the daladala. It’s the epitome of teamwork. There’s a driver and a conductor. The driver drives (duh!) the daladala and the conductor hangs out of the sliding door window while scouting for potential customers, calls out the approaching bus stops for current customers all the while keep track of which customers in the daladala have paid and those that have not paid. Since we have an abundance of daladalas they also compete against each other for customers. In town, you always have at least 2 or 3 daladalas calling at you to ride with them. Most of these conductors and drivers are in their 20s and every single one of them is a character! It’s entertaining to see how a conductor acts toward and speaks with his driver. You never know what’s going to happen when you get on a daladala. Their character is passed on to their daladala as they each detail their vehicles (inside and out!)  with paint, stickers, horns, speaker systems and more. Consider this a Tanzanian edition of “Pimp my Ride.” Then there is the biggest tradition of writing proverbs or phrases on the back windows (and sometimes even the front window too.) Faith, Football (soccer), and Famous celebrities tend to be the most common decorations. It seems to me that they write on these windows what’s most important to them. The words and phrases above are examples of what I’ve found on daladalas.

Then that made me think (which usually means trouble…): If I were a conductor, what would my Daladala say?

Would it say something regarding my faith?
Would it be the names of my family and friends?
Would it say something about my addiction to travel?
Would it mention things that I obsess over or list accomplishments that I have achieved?

What would my daladala say?
What would YOUR daladala say?

Where do you spend most of your time? What’s on your mind all day? God not only asks but rightly deserves to be the desire of our heart, the source of our strength and the will behind our actions. I want my daladala to speak of God’s love, peace and purpose. What about you?

What does your daladala say?

Marking the Mitihani

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(written on May 21, 2011)

Last week I was chosen by the headteacher to invigilate the Class 7 Standardized testing. After the two days of testing I thought we were finished but actually we were just beginning. The headteacher then shared with me that we’d spend ALL of Thursday and Friday in town marking/grading our exams. (FYI…exams in Kiswahili = mitihani) Of course the day we want to go to town is the day a Daladala strike begins and all public transportation ends. So the government ordered massive charter buses to carry people in and out of town which was a nightmare. Imagine if you were at the back of a 60 person vehicle and needed to get off at the next stop. They also converted taxis into daladalas by cramming up to 7 or 8 people in a car. Finally we arrived in town and began walking to the school where we’d be marking their scores. Then we did the usual Tanzanian wait an hour to start. Once a few other teachers arrived, I was told we’d be grading ALL the exams of Class 7 students for ALL non-governmental schools in the Morogoro area. It was then that I understood why he said it’d take 2 full days to grade all the tests. So we corralled our desks into a circle and started the marking assembly line. I was responsible for questions 21-25. The woman to my left had a habit of handing me each test with her red pen still in hand meaning my left hand (and arm) were covered in red dots and lines before the day was done. Being that we had marked well through lunch time I was anticipating the usual plate of rice and beans but we were only presented with some bread (similar to cornbread), a small juice and a cup of tea. (I imagine this is due to school budget cuts here. Oh how we’re all alike in some ways…) So from 9:30am to 3:00pm we marked only 3 exams (granted they were from 12 schools averaging at least 70 students each for these exams.) So we finished, made our way back to the city and boarded a large delivery truck which was being used in place of daladalas.  Day 1 complete!

Day 2 started off more on time (which was a nice change of pace) and it at least seemed like a good sign. We had finished marking all 5 sets of exams by 11am and I was thrilled that I would be able to be back home in time for a healthier lunch than a juice box and muffin. I was wrong. We then had to hand write the records for each student on all their exams on forms for their school. This included the normal periods of waiting and when we finished with the Class 7 exams, we went to help the Class 4 group finish theirs. What was imagined (and hoped for) to be a lovely half day concluded at 5:30pm which made for a really long Friday. But the mitihani are marked and I have now experienced another aspect of the education system of Tanzania. Oh how much I took Scantrons for granted…

*I forgot to mention the plethora of grammar and spelling errors on the tests. This is one of my frustrations with testing here because if a person who fluently speaks English can’t understand the question, how do they expect any student to understand and answer correctly? Fortunately there weren’t too many that were completely incomprehensible but I feel bad for the students who probably tried hard to understand the question and couldn’t. Then came the arguments between teachers over a number of questions on the English exam. I shared that I had “some” experience with the English language (though I admitted that I’m far from perfect with it) but that didn’t seem to matter to some of  the teachers. And there’s nothing like correcting the answer key that was already put together by other teachers…