"Ici on parle siSwati"

Karen Radford Treanor 


� Copyright 2018  by Karen Radford Treanor

Photo of Njabuliso and the flame tree blossoms.

When we went to work in Swaziland, a tiny independent kingdom in southern Africa, it was expected that we would try to learn the local language, siSwati, a cousin to siZulu. The Swazis often laughed at our efforts, but were unfailingly enthusiastic and helpful, and many impromptu tutorials were delivered by friendly strangers at the market or bus station.

As well as the language, there were new customs to learn. Right-handedness was important in Swaziland. Anything someone passed to you must be received with the right hand, the left hand grasping the right wrist. For a left-handed person like me, it was a problem. The second phrase I learned after "Sawubona" was "Ncesi nesincele", "Forgive (my) left hand". I knew I was bound to commit left-handed sins, and thought it best to be forearmed with an apology.

There was one completely unforseen complication of language that only slowly made itself apparent.

Our younger daughter Erin, known by all as Njabuliso, “the bringer of happiness”, was about 18 months old and under the kind but firm care of Mrs. Zwane, (ZWA-nee) who thought she was the world's best baby, possibly excepting her own nine children. She would sit for ages tempting the fussy eater to consume enormous bowls of baby cereal, whereas I, the birth mother, usually got it spat back at me.


Gene was working long hours and often didn't get home until the baby had gone down for the night, and usually managed to sleep through her midnight calls for company and amusement. Days went by without his seeing her awake.

One long weekend, when he had spent more time with his younger daughter than was usual, he said "Shouldn't that child be speaking by now?"

"Why should she speak? Mrs. Zwane and Bethany anticipate her every whim, so what's she got to ask for?" I asked.

"She doesn't seem to respond to much we say; do you suppose she could be deaf?" Gene persisted, watching the little girl chase sun sparkles on the polished floor.

"She's not even two yet. The doctor says she's healthy, if still a bit small, but she was three weeks premature and that takes a bit of catching up," I said, but in a rather unsure tone. The idea that something might be wrong had taken root and would bother me until I got the baby to the doctor for her next check-up.

Gene disappeared into the kitchen and came back on tiptoe with a pot lid, which he dropped on the floor behind the unsuspecting baby.

As I tried to quiet the ensuing roars, he said, "OK--so she's not deaf. Could she be slightly retarded? "

I sneaked away, patting the howling baby on the back. Mrs. Zwane came into the kitchen with a fierce look. "What has happened to Njabuliso?"

"She's had a little fright. Treanor thought there was something wrong with her, and he scared her by accident," I explained, verbally distancing myself from the wicked parent.

"Hau! She's a lovely baby. She's a good baby. You tell him he must not say things like that!" she replied huffily.

I later reported to Gene, "Mrs Zwane doesn’t like you casting slurs on her baby."

"Her baby?"

"Well, you know how it is," I said. "After all, she spends a lot more time with the baby than we do, since most of the time Njabuliso is awake, we're at work."

Mrs. Zwane brought the subject up again the next day. "What makes Treanor think there is something wrong with the baby?"

"Well, she doesn't speak, and she doesn't respond much when we talk to her," I explained.

"But she does," insisted Mrs. Zwane, “She talks to me, as much as any baby that age talks. And she always does what I tell her right away."

I reported this to Gene, who said he'd be happier if I took her to the doctor for a check-up anyway. The doctor found nothing amiss and when I said she didn't respond much to our requests, suggested that she was just stubborn. This we already knew, but it wasn't the answer to the present problem.

I was still concerned, so I arranged to have half a day off work. I sat in the kitchen and watched Mrs. Zwane and the baby. Njabuliso toddled around, prattling away happily, playing with spoons, and "helping" Mrs. Zwane by fetching small things and mopping a spill off the floor. It took about half an hour before the light dawned on me. I hugged both Mrs. Zwane and the baby and went back to work happily.

That evening I kept the baby awake until her father came home.

As he was sitting down with his after work drink, I said, "I think I've solved the problem about the baby. How is she different from other babies we've known?"

"What is this, Passover?" he asked.

"No, I'm serious."

"OK. She's smaller, louder and better looking," he said, after a bit of thought.

"And--?" I prompted.

"She's the youngest member of the Peace Corps that I know of," he added.

"Getting warmer. What else?"

He couldn't think of anything else.

"Watch this," I instructed. "Njabuliso!" I called. She looked up from her toys. "Buya-la," I directed. She got up and came to me. I put a book on the floor. "Tsatsa incwadzi," I ordered. She picked up the book. "Ngi cela unike incwadzi na Bab�."

She toddled over to her father and gave him the book. "Buya enza weni yakho, Hlala-pansi," I said. She returned to her toy box and sat down.

Gene was amazed. "She did what you asked!"

"Why?" I asked.

"Well…er…godalmighty, you were speaking siSwati!" he said as the realization hit him as it had me earlier that day.

"Right. I sat in the kitchen and watched Mrs. Zwane with Erin today, and after a while it hit me: when there's no adult here, Mrs. Zwane doesn't speak English; why should she? And her predecessor, laDlamini, had such a frail grasp of English she most likely never spoke it to the baby. Her sister Bethany mostly bosses her around and that doesn’t take many words, and anyway, she’s at nursery school half the day. So why should Erin respond to English?"

Taking a deep drink of his gin and tonic, Gene said "So you're telling me that our child's mother tongue isn't English but siSwati?"

"That's what I think. All we have to do is ask Mrs. Zwane to speak more English to her and I think the problem will solve itself."

"Somehow that seems odd," said Gene, "having to ask your Zulu housekeeper to teach your American baby to speak English in Swaziland."

And so it happened that Mrs. Zwane, in addition to her duties as household manager, babysitter and resident expert in African lore, became an English tutor. It worked out quite well: Mrs. Zwane's English was very precise and almost accent free. In less than six months, Njabuliso was on par with and perhaps even ahead of her peers.

The only slightly embarrassing times were when someone would drop in and enquire where the baby was, and I'd have to explain she was out on the porch having her English lesson with Mrs. Zwane.

We were one of the first two families to be recruited in the summer of 1970.  We had a three month old and a three year old.  The Nieblas family from California had a pair of primary school kids.  By 1970 the Peace Corps brass had realised that it made more sense to recruit skilled tradesmen and run them through a cross cultural training and language course than to try and make BA generalists into tradesmen.  And since skilled tradies are usually grown men with families, they had to accept that concept in Washington.  I am sure there were many nervous nellies in Foggy Bottom worried about sending American children to the Third World, but in fact our kids had a wonderful life in several parts of Africa—one of them was born there—and never came to any harm.  None of my children ever got shot “by accident” as seems to be all too common in the modern USA.  We often joked about having infected the younger Peace Corps Volunteers with the baby bug, because there were quite a few babies born to young couples after we arrived.

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