Mind Your Language – A Wordy But True Tale

Before I traveled to Buhugu in Uganda in 2010 at the beginning of winter (in south-eastern Uganda the end of the first of two annual rainy seasons), I did not suspect that there was anything as established as Ugandan English. That people speaking English in Uganda erred in definable ways, along marked pathways. Did not err, in fact. Ugandan English was something that Ugandans spoke well.

My own errors in English change continuously, or so I imagine. I hear myself making them and I try to correct them, sometimes even in the moment of utterance. When it comes to speaking English, I strive for the straight and narrow.

Hence, it was with some grumpiness (some grumpiness? grumpily?) that I argued with my non-Ugandan friends against the inversion of words in simple sentences such as ‘What is your name?’ and ‘Where are you going?’

Why the need to say ‘Your name is WHAT?’ or ‘You are going WHERE?’ and ‘You are going there. Why?’

My friends argued that this was necessary for comprehension by people for whom English was not their mother tongue and was a desirable part of the evolution of English. It was important to put the stress on the important part of the sentence to focus the listener’s attention on it. This may be standard in Bantu languages. We were busy communicating with speakers whose home language was Lugisu, a Bantu language.

The pervasiveness of English, even among the older generation in Buhugu, was striking. One could hold a reasonable conversation with people whose schooling had not extended beyond primary level, even some who had not managed to complete that steep ascent, halted by the harsh realities of peasant farming and school fees.

Uganda has now instituted free primary schooling and numbers in rural schools swell to as high as a hundred children in one class, even higher. The medium of instruction is still English, although that may be in the process of changing.

I am generally thought to be obstinate, but not when I am on holiday. Then I am like dough, the essence of pliability. I am malleable. I allow myself to be manipulated. After all, a foreign country is created for the convenience of the inhabitants and not the traveller.

However, I was not convinced that I should yield on the point of language. Although I let my friends pull me and punch me into acquiescence, at the heart of me was a little germ that – when they left me alone in a warm and comfortable place – enabled me to rise and grow into my own shape. I decided that instead of speaking in staccato tones and inverting complex sentences – ‘And you per-son-ally, you are hoping to achieve WHAT?’ – I would use the simplest forms of correct English – ‘What do you want to do?’

I would cut the fat off the language, dispense with all excess. I am a lover of less.

The Ugandans I met responded well to my approach, in fact went so far as to say, ‘You speak good English.’ Ugandans have dignity. Praise of superiority does not mean admission of inferiority. It comes from never having been a colony, I think, and not having had a foreign settler urban and land-owning population.

Following the 1885 Treaty of Berlin, Uganda became a British protectorate, meaning that independence would, in time, be restored to those to whom it had belonged. Although land was seized by the British as Crown land, much of it was left in local hands. In the part of Uganda in which I was now happily idling away my time, traditional patterns of land occupation did not appear to have been altered significantly over the centuries.

I was not insensitive, meanwhile, to the subtle insult in the compliment I had received. What it meant was that my cut and dried version of the English language was being politely set aside. Whether it was understood or not did not, in the final analysis, matter.

And it was boring in face of the delights of Ugandan English. Not merely the oddity of ‘borrow’ for ‘lend’, common among non-English English speakers the world over, but the surprise of a passerby’s ‘Thank you for washing’ when I was engaged in the wholly selfish purpose of hanging out my own laundry.

Then there’s the matter of ‘sorry’ or ‘I’m sorry’ in the absence of any guilt or responsibility. If one were to say to a Ugandan ‘The government has murdered a thousand people’, the answer might well be: ‘I’m sorry.’

Here’s a nice one: ‘I’m walking like a goat without eyes.’

And another: ‘You have been lost’ (meaning you have not been seen for some time).

You can find picturesque examples of Ugandan English on Wikipedia, including ‘monologue’ for ‘vagina’ (following the brief appearance of the Broadway play ‘The Vagina Monologues’ on the Ugandan stage before it was banned).

And ‘boda boda’ for the bicyle taxis that plied the road that ran through our village, often carrying women passengers who sat side-saddle like queens without any apparent discomfort or fear of falling off. (The term originated at the nearby Uganda Kenya border, where cyclists carrying travellers over the kilometre’s distance that separates the two borders would attract customers by calling ‘border, border’).

My own observations have more to do with the complex and no less expressive aspects of language that I engaged in with Bulombi Simon Peter whom I met soon after I arrived in the small village in Buhugu sub-county. Actually, I was visiting a village within a village – a digital village project that had grown into the Buhugu Initiative and had given hope to many. When Simon directed his dark and brooding eyes in my direction and told me he loved language and literature I knew that we had much in common. We were both in love with the same thing.

Simon’s book of choice in the small library that was being assembled in the village was Elements of Grammar and Style. This was pleasing in my sight, but the book didn’t look like much of a page turner. I suggested that, instead, he read A Modern History of East Africa. I wanted Simon to see himself in context, for Simon and I had quite soon embarked on a literary project of my devising.

It was this: Simon, the lover of language and literature, would write the story of his life in his own words and I would carry those words to the world. Who knew what would come of them? Did Simon have the soul of a writer? Would his story create fresh understanding of life? Who can tell the power of words? Saying is doing.

And that, of course, is true. As Simon would have said.

Simon agreed instantly to my proposal. He said simply, ‘I shall comply.’

There was generally a grandeur to Simon’s speech and a gentle, rocking motion. ‘Reflect and meditate’ was the advice he offered. ‘It is good and perfect’ was his response to a casual inquiry.

He was a man of words. He should have been a preacher and, indeed, that was what he had striven for before fate had stopped him in his tracks. Simon, the last born in a family of twelve children, had been brought up in the hands of his aunt, Reverend Josephine. He had made up his mind to join a seminary school in preparation to serve the Lord as a priest, he told me, but his call was cut short by an envious religious person, his administrator.

‘It is right and perfect,’ Simon said, ‘to say that God calls and never one’s fellow human beings and that I cannot judge him [his administrator]. On the other side of the coin maybe it was God’s making. I can only pray for him and forgive him.’

God is able.

That was another Simonism. I came across it again later, inscribed on the side of a Kampala minibus taxi. God is everywhere in Uganda.

Simon divided his story into sections: Background of family lineage; Religious morals of the whole family; Economic background and values … He began thus: ‘He happens to be born of a humble family residing on slopes of Mt Elgon. Being a mountainous area, we actually know it as ever cool. What a tremendous thing to stay in a cool area!’

His grandparents having received what Simon called ‘free uninhabited land on slopes of Mt Elgon towards late 1890s’ had passed the land on to their children. The land, Simon said, was fragmented by their children after the family’s expansion. Part of Simon’s share had been sold to pay his school fees. Barely a hectare was now left to support him and his parents.

It was soon clear that although my own motivation was pure and literary, Simon’s was not. He had secondary motives such as keeping body and soul together, finding a way to make money, and protecting his hands from the blisters that came from working his hectare of land, planted with beans, cassava, ground nuts and bananas.

For a while, however, Simon flowered at my elbow, explaining obscurities in his text, elaborating on details. I delighted in the poetry of Simon’s words, his inversions, his misappropriations. The way he used ‘ever’.

‘I am ever there.’ ‘His promises are ever dark.’

As we pondered the text, Simon suddenly remembered the origin of his name. “My grandfather,” he exclaimed, “found somebody caught stealing. He lamented to the criminal by saying, ‘Why can’t you beg other than stealing? Because a beggar will never be condemned.’” So, the community gave him the name of Bulombi, which means ‘beggar’. That was how Simon came to be named Bulombi. Simon Peter was his Christian name.

It was another source of surprise: everyone in Buhugu seemed to have a traditional Lugisu name and a Christian name, often delivered as one. The Lugisu name functioned as the surname, in harmonious combination. Thus, Masiga Rogers, Makoba Richard, Kisolo Sam, Wobaka Simon, Manafa Saad, Nakayenze Annet, Mambafu Mabel, Namalikye Marta and Namono Linda.  Mabel, Martha and Linda are sisters, daughters of Henry and Rose. Each with a different surname. These are all real people and you can see pictures of some of them at http://buhugu.org. They made a big impression on my heart, but that is another story.

This one has more to do with language and more or less stops with Simon. Whatever the realities of his life, Simon had not included politics in the chapterisation of his story. He was too young to remember Idi Amin. The Last King of Scotland was of no interest to him. He did not have much place in his memory for the post-Amin years in which soldiers had randomly terrorised villages, grabbing food stocks and beating people. If President Museveni existed, he did not seem to be part of Simon’s contextualisation.

God, on the other hand, was. “Unfortunately, when the good is destroyed by the evil,” Simon wrote, “deeply one is filled by pain and sadness. Even though we should really remember that there is death, but death has never been pleasant. God’s making has never been man’s planning. Appeal is only known by God.”

It is not necessary to delve into the details of Simon’s life. Uganda has 30 million people and Simon-ee (Lugisu speakers are inclined to add a vowel to a lonely consonant whenever they find one) was only one of them. A poor man from whom I was taking. According to Simon – it was to the best of his mind, he said – humans are groomed by religion to live humanly. Without the support of friends and their generosity, he would not have reached where he ended. In everybody’s expectations, one normally hopes for the best and sorrow creates wounds of soul and spirit.

“God is good,” Wobaka Simon said one evening when the power came back on. I was watching him play chess with Saad. Power cuts, it must be said, are a feature of life in Buhugu.

“Sometimes,” I responded, meeting an inquiring look.

Saad, who is known for his silence, spoke up. “If you say that, God will not trust you.”

It was my turn to be surprised, but it was an eloquent inversion and a good response, and Simon, for one, knew it was the right answer.

“God is good always,” he said.

That happened not long before I left Buhugu and was lost. Ever lost. At the time it made me think again of Bulombi Simon Peter and his needs and the literary resources that could not satisfy them.

“It is of tremendous thought,” he had written, “to have in mind that hope and life are inseparable. More achievements would have been over my way but I cannot lose hope. One’s success is being delayed but never denied.”

And that, of course, it is true.