All the stories I have shared here on this blog have come from moments when I communicated with others in languages that I understand. I must admit that the following one breaks with that tradition.
Here in Okahenge, a rural farming community in the far north of Namibia, I live with a host family in their homestead. I do my best to greet everyone, communicate my needs, and occasionally attempt humor in Kwanyama. This is my host family’s first language, spoken by some 250,000 thousand Namibians—mostly in Oshana and Ohangwena in the north—and over 400,000 thousand Angolans across the border.
Each evening in the homestead follows a routine pattern. First, I return from school to find my elderly host father sitting in the center of the homestead, listening to his radio. I greet him, shake his hand, and he thanks me and congratulates me on the small accomplishments of my day. Then, someone inevitably prompts me to drink oshikundu, a lightly fermented sorghum brew that is popular in Owambo and anywhere one finds Ovambo people. After sufficiently stirring the oshikundu and adding a spoonful of sugar, I sit with my siblings and watch my sister cook. Most days, we cook porridge to be eaten with meat: chicken, goat, pork, or preserved beef. Some days, we stray from this and have mounds of potatoes and cabbage, or rice. My sister asks about my day at Omusheshe Combined School. My brother tells me when it is time to herd the livestock—donkeys, cows, and goats—into the corral.
However, the interactions I want to highlight are those with my host mother, who I call Meme. She oversees the nightly cooking by giving intermittent instructions and shooing away ever-present chickens by whistling a sharp note at them and waving whatever sharp object is in her hand.
Without trying to be, she is the best language teacher. This is in part because she speaks to me only in Kwanyama, and does not seem to think that I could prefer any other language. Also, she is always doing something. I frequently take advantage of this by asking her what it is that she is doing. Happily, she explains that she is peeling potatoes, or playing Owela (like Mankala, or bao), or feeding some pigs. Other times I ask her what things are; like bats, ladles, or stars. Perhaps because of my constant curiosity or perhaps because my question is always the same “What’s that?” she chuckles with amusement. I am like a child learning the world for the first time, except I should be a young, adult man.
My Meme smiles when I misunderstand. Nevertheless, she does not withhold information. When I ask about her activities, it goes something like this:
“What are you doing?”
“Giving water to the donkeys.”
“Giving water. I’m giving water to the donkeys.”
Then, she laughs.
“You are asking me what this is? This is sugarcane. Eat it.”
“Yes, take it, it’s sugarcane.”
Then, she laughs.
Each evening while overseeing the cooking and entertaining the ornery grandson, Meme also chases out as many chickens as she can from the branches of our mango trees and toward their coop on the west end of the homestead. We have a long wooden pole meant solely for this task.
Yesterday, I asked her, “The chickens … why we don’t … Why they can’t sit in the trees?”
Without skipping a beat, she replied . The semantic content of her response eluded me entirely, but her expression said what I needed to know. Flustered, she gestured with her massive pole upward and then toward the coop. Her eyes looked tired. She laughed and sighed.
“And they eat the trees too much,” I added.
She agreed and laughed again, maybe at this perpetual war on poultry that she must wage or maybe at the word choice of my observation—or maybe at both.