Friday, October 11, 2013

41. Wazungu Wha?

I wrote an essay that I was proud of, and I submitted it to the women’s travel forum Pink Pangea.  The work was accepted and published here (A’zungu: One of Many Names in Mozambique) on June 2, 2013.

This morning, I woke up to find an email that stated, “So-and-so has left a comment on your post…!”  Feeling pleased yet somewhat nervous, I went ahead and opened the email.  Here was the comment:

“its actually mzungu singular and wazungu plural”

Oh.  (slump of the shoulders)

And that was it.  If the comment had been printed on a piece of paper, I would have flipped it backwards and forwards, searching for more content.  Who was this person?  Why were they so compelled to write this?  Why was this so important to them?  And- first and foremost- did I misspell the keyword of my very own article?

The comment sent me into a flurry of furious research.  I looked into the best accepted spellings of words in several dialects, including (but not limited to) Chinyanja, Chichewa, and what I could scrounge of Chinyungue.  I filtered through online dictionaries, papers and PDF files from the University of California - Berkeley, and several Wikitravel entries, searching for the correct method of constructing the plural.  

All the while I fretted and worried, “Was I wrong?  Was I wrong? Was I wrong?”

In the end I just found more confusion.  “A’zungu,” it seemed, was absolutely correct.  At least, in the particular region in which I live.  But, suddenly, the words that I was using to say “Good morning,” and “Good afternoon,” seemed several letters off.  And other words for common things were completely new to me. 

The thing about languages (and especially about the Bantu languages of sub-Saharan Africa) is that they’re always growing and shrinking and moving and changing with the populations of people that speak them.  These are living, shifting languages spoken by millions of people and thousands of groups, and it’s impossible to make hard delineations.   

Nyungwe (technically chinyungwe, but often referred to as “ma’nyungwe”) is like a butterfly.   It isn’t fair to try and pin it down.   It’s beautiful because it’s alive.  Because it’s flexible. 

My neighbors don’t bother to make such distinctions.  Spelling is fluid, and speaking is, too.  Arsenio (Seni) likes to spells his name with a ç.  Zobue is written as Zóbuè and Zobwe on two opposing government buildings within our very town.   Romao told me that the dialect word for thank you was the same as in Portuguese—obrigado—while by the books, it’s not.  (According to “his” language, the word is actually ndatenda)

But these languages are always changing, and people speak the way they speak. 

Finally, I decided that I would solve this question once and for all.  I would consult an expert—an authority on the subject matter. 

I opened my front door and I looked outside for Seni. 

“Hey Seni,” I called out, yelling across the yard.  “Seni!  Is it Ahhhh’zungu or Wahhh’zungu?” 

“A’zungu!” he responded. 

“You sure?”  I asked. 

“Uh-huh,” he said. 

So there you have it, Commenter.  That’s enough of your input.  I’ll stick with the experts on this one.   And I won’t change the name of my article.  

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