Thursday, July 07, 2005

Swahili, toilet water and supangett

This morning it suddenly struck me as a modern day miracle that the water we use to flush our shit down the toilet in the U.S. is drinkable. In the last six weeks all my ideas about water have been seriously realigned. Yesterday we visited a village that is building a well with a water pump. Before the well, people would have to walk 2-3 hours one way to fetch water during the dry season, and one hour when there's water in the river. If the family didn't have a donkey, they could only bring back one jerrycan (20 liters) of water in one trip; with a donkey they could carry 80 liters. For the first couple of weeks it bothered me that some nights I go to bed smelling like rice or ugali (a pasty dough made with maize flour and water) because my host mama prepares my bathwater with the same water she uses to wash the sufuriya (coooking pot) after dinner. But these days, as long as I know the water has been boiled and treated with purification chemicals, it doesn't matter what color it is or what's floating in it.

Today we took a mock ACTFL, which is the language proficiency test we have to pass in order to continue as a volunteer after pre-service training. My Swahili is improving, and I think in the last week I've made huge leaps in vocabulary and grammar competencies. I can now tell all the language teachers that I drink like a fish (Ninakunywa pombe kama samaki), that they bore the hell out of me (Unaniboo), and that ten shillings for an avocado is a ripoff (Ovakado ni shilingi kumi? Ghali sana!).

Swahili is a strange language. Basically you conjugate verbs, adjectives and adverbs to agree with whatever class of noun you are modifying. You create meaning by adding prefixes, infixes and suffixes to verb roots. If you remove all prefixes and suffixes from certain verbs, you realize that the root word is a single letter. So, the verb "to be" is "w," "to have" is "n," "to eat" is "l," and "to give" is "p." In reality you'd never use any of these words in their root form, but it's funny to think of it that way.

Tommorrow our trainers announce our site placements. This is where we will be posted for the next two years digging wells, shoveling chicken and goat shit, talking about condoms and encouraging people wash their hands after using the choo. We are just over halfway through our pre-service training, but I already know I'm going to miss my homestay a lot, despite the fact that all the kids smell like pee and are covered in dust and snot. Once we get to our sites, we are pretty much the only mzungu for miles, and for the first three months we have been specifically instructed to "do nothing." This is the Peace Corps' way of forcing us to get to know how our communities operate and what their public health needs are instead of crashing through the village trying to convert everyone to clean and healthy mzungu ways on day one.

Well tonight I am making spaghetti for my host family. I took a big risk and asked my host mama to buy ground beef for the meat sauce. I am curious and mad nervous to see what the Kenyan version of ground beef is. When I told my host parents I was making spaghetti, they said in their Kenyan hick accents, "Oh, supangett? Somebody tell me mzungu like supangett but I never try. So I am happy for supangett." I saw a menu at one of the local restaurants and discovered that indeed, the Kenyan word for spaghetti is "spangetti."

Will let you know how the supangett turns out.


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