Mbabane, Swaziland | 21 January 2015
There are many things I love about Swaziland. Most of all, if I had to say, is the language. Of course I have become fond of the Swazi people, quirks and all, but I find it hard to ‘love’ any group of people, including my ‘own’ Australians, for love seems to be an emotion best served when it is not directed towards groups.
At its heart, like English, siSwati seems to be a language empty of jargon. It’s only when too many experts and specialists get their hands on the language that jargon begins to creep upon the tongue.
I’m sure there are a few jargon words in siSwati, too, but this mlungu novice has not stumbled across many.
For instance, what are the direct siSwati translations for ‘sustainability’ or ‘gender equity’? What are the siSwati translations for ‘capacity building’ and ‘skills transfer’?
How the West speaks about aid and development can have a direct ‘impact’, or otherwise, on how programs are implemented on the ground.
I’m sure that close siSwati translations do exist for these popular words and concepts; and I’m guessing the siSwati translations are more expressive and picturesque than their rather bland English counterparts.
Now correct me if I am wrong but I have noticed that siSwati prefers not to engage in confrontation.
The preference is for respectful words and phrases, and a tone that allows the other person to have his or her say in his or her own time.
It has also just dawned me that different cultures, to some extent, use language in different ways, because different cultures think of ‘time’ in different ways.
Us mlungus have a tendency to jump into the conversation and pride ourselves on ‘getting straight to the point’. This approach certainly has its benefits and its place. And it is this culture in which I was raised and will forever feel an overriding affinity for.
But I have noticed how this approach – or ‘culture of language’, to sound like an expert – can often put the other person off from saying what they wanted to say. In that sense, I would like to think I have learned something called kubeketela from my Swazi colleagues and friends.
I have also learned, for better or worse, that ‘respect’ is defined differently in different cultures. On top of that, I have learned that for one to be respectful they need not forget their own culture and submit to the dominant culture; but rather to be honest about why they think they way they do and to explain why one person’s respect is another person’s humiliation or humour.
Dialogue and conversation and, most importantly, sincerity, breeds understanding and allows bridges to be built where once there were none.
This does not mean we all must agree or get along, but respect in my mind is you telling me why you disagree with me. And I don’t really mind if you use harsh or direct or hurtful words.
I can still remember the day I came home from primary school, crying and hysterical because other kids had been calling me fat. (Yes, I was a fat child.)
After nursing my tears, mum and dad softly and strongly told me that ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me’.
Later in life, reading a book by author Hannah Arendt, another string of words struck a chord with me: ‘I have never in my life “loved” any people or collective group… and the only kind of love I know and believe in is the love of persons.’
This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland on 21 January 2015