Tuesday, April 6, 2010


Language. Oh what fun it’s been to learn the Malawian language. Except that in honesty, by no means am I even remotely close to having the privilege to say I’ve learned it or can even say that I kind of know it. I have very limited speaking abilities but I am known for my craziness, diligence, and refusal to give up. Therefore the students or working staff at the school are constantly talking to me in Chichewa, rattling off words so quickly…..it’s like they’ve forgotten that I actually DON’T know the language. I guess it is helping me daily though as we go through the “teach Michelle Chichewa process”. This process is very long but simple. They say something in Chichewa. I look at them with an odd blank stare…which is actually what’s in my head. Blank. Then I have them repeat it while I try my best to catch words or sounds that are familiar. Again, blank. Then I have them repeat it again….because maybe this time I’ll understand. See resilience! But again, blank. And then I give up and say, “Okay just tell me. What are you saying?” They then smile, chuckle, and tell me what they were saying, I repeat it two or three times, walk away, engage in another conversation and, poof….it’s gone! Blank again! Dang. Unless those same words and phrases are repeated over and over through the period of a week or month there’s no hope for me! And even then sometimes I struggle as many times I get words like beans, cow, and home mixed up. Sometimes I say I’m going home. Sometimes I say I’m going beans. Ha. This week however I had a breakthrough when I learned how to say I want to go to the bathroom and some of the words that go with bathroom…for some reason that one stuck. I found my new words very helpful however when one of my kids decided that she wanted the nickname Bibi. At first I thought okay. Then I remembered that bibi in Chichewa was poop! So I secretly pulled her aside and informed her of this great knowledge, asking her if she really wanted to be called bibi? She got a cute little grin on her face and decided not. Smart kid and yay to Tina for teaching me the word poop! I’m making progress!!

I will say that learning the language has been interesting as many of the college students have taken advantage of me and my lack of knowledge in their instruction. I know this because the response to many of my phrases are a laugh, an “Eee” (remember this means “goodness” or “good grief” with disapproval), and a “Michelleoh! Who taught you that?” At which point I give a ridiculously large grin of satisfaction and rat out the person who abused their privilege of teaching me. Shame. Although in all honesty I do egg it all on and enjoy learning the random phrases just for the shock value! For instance the first phrase I learned was “Sia Ndi Kuswa”, which means “Stop I’m going to beat you up!” I found this very handy with my volleyball players in a practice or with any of the boys on campus really. I’m sure some may wonder if I’ve developed Chichewa Turrets. I’ve also learned how to say “Your mom!” and “That’s how I roll.” I can shout out “IWE”, “YOU” across campus and command the attention of all and I love to yell “TEMANGA, TEMANGA, NSANGA, NSANGA” at the top of my lungs at every volleyball practice and watch the boys play along in that I’ve actually intimidated them enough to run. This means “RUN, RUN, HUSTLE, HUSTLE.” I have learned a very important song about “You’re going down. That one there”. To the best of my knowledge this would translate into “We Will Rock You”. Singing this on campus actually made me famous for a while as everyone was amazed at the fact that I could sing it, even though I butchered it, and every time someone would see me on campus they would sing it. It was like I had my very own theme song that would follow me wherever I would go. “Wa gwa nyo, wa gwa nyo, aminio”!! I can apologize, say I love you, let’s eat, let’s pray, sit down, come here, you’re looking nice and a few other important phrases. It’s my goal each week to learn something new.

I do have to say that as I’ve taken from the language I’ve also given back. I have been an instrumental part of the Chichewa language development and Malawi should hire me to fill in the gaps in their language. This last November when it was one of my dear friend Titu’s birthday I asked my aide Catherine how to say happy birthday in Chichewa. It was my hope to remember it long enough to actually say it to him and dazzle him with my knowledge. However, to my bewilderment I found that there were actually NO words for happy birthday! Can you believe it? Eeee! So I invented some. Which oddly enough I, the founder of happy birthday in Chichewa, even forget and have to ask sometimes how to sing happy birthday in my own Chichewa words! Ha! But regardless my “Moolee Weewa” has spread around the campus and my hope is that it will continue to spread, bringing cheer and joy to all villages and homes across Malawi. You’re welcome Chichewa language. You’re kwambiri (very) welcome.

So anyway I’ve continued to find the heartbreaking gaps in Chichewa as I’ve gone along and I’ve found that I have a lot of work before me. The other day I discovered that they have no words for certain colors. Everything in Chichewa is green or blue. Eee again. Goodness, this explains a lot! These people need some color names in their lives! Now this process of coming up with a name for every color in a box of Crayola Coloring Crayons will take a very long time but I think I have a plan. You see many times in the Chichewa language they simply take an English word and add an –oh (as in oh my) or an –ee (as in bumblebee) at the end to make it Chichewa. For instance when I go to the village and I introduce myself as Michelle, inevitably by the end of the day I’ve turned into Michelleoh. So now that’s what they call me here! Or a number. Take the number nine. Nine in Chichewa is Nineee! Ten? Tenee. Six? Sixee. Easy right? So my plan is that I will just add a few vowel letters to the end of color names and this should fix most of the problem. Yellowee, Brownoh, Orangeoh, Purpleee, Aquaoh, Neonee Pinkoh…well it’s a good start for now.

I must admit there have been a few setbacks in my work however. For instance I was told that my word for birthday (weewa) actually means pee. Not so good. Just recently I also attempted to find a word for you’re welcome just to find that the word meant bile. Again, not so good. In Chichewa they say thank you and then thank you again for you’re welcome. However, now I know more words so I guess it wasn’t a complete failure.

So my mission now has broadened. I am a teacher of small children, a volleyball coach to a bunch of crazy boys, I have been called to love on college students and eat their unsettling food a couple times of week in order to connect and see them, and now I am on a mission to be the first Chichewa Linguist Gap Filler Upper. “Filling the potholes of Chichewa, one word at a time.” That will be the slogan on my t-shirts and bumper stickers! I love it. Praise Jesus for his work through the crazy at heart and slightly off-their-rocker missionaries! God is good.


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Gisele said...

Hey Michele, I like this, well done you, you had me in stitches. I am a malawian living in the UK for the past 18 years and I am trying to teach my daughter chichewa, so I can understand how difficult it is. I have always taken it for granted how easy it was! By the way, the phrase for Happy Birthday in chichewa is 'Chaka chabwino'. Keep up the good work.

Mary Gondwe - Indiana, USA said...

I love it! I am an American married to a Malawian man. We have been married for almost 5 years and I have struggled to learn. Here is my favorite - mbuzi, choka (go away goat) kikikikiki (laugh in chechewa) :) I love say EEEEEEE to my husband when he does something wamisala (crazy) and calling him mavuto (problem child). Keep up the good work!!! We plan on coming to Malawi soon!

Nicole Schischke said...

heeeey...whats ur email adress? would love to text u and ask more about ur life in malawi. it sounds so wonderful. hope u gonna be in LL again xx