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…)