“i eat your english”
(from) Khadijah Abdalla Bajaber –
Art has to make sense, for me.
Inaccuracies always create interference that puts people’s truths, lives, cultures and realities at risk of distortion and even blatant appropriation.
If, like me, you are an artist of any kind whose work is intended as an archive of a community and its social dynamics plus language, then you can’t rely only on second hand information. You must be present every day.
This is particularly important in any form that involves dialogue or the spoken word. That means writing (for the page, theater or film); as well as songwriting especially where other people’s vernacular is included.
For dialogue-driven writing, pick a time you want to write about but also listen to how they speak then. In Africa particularly we write our languages fluently but speak them so differently on the ground. Everybody from babies to the elderly adds something to how we speak almost on a daily basis. Our languages are constantly growing and changing to include everyone. We all have a piece of it that we own.
Someone very dear to me really loves Beyonce’s Spirit so it has been a top listen for us since we first heard it in the cinema in 2019. But it’s only recently that I realized the song starts with “Uishi kwa muda mrefu mfalme,” which in very peculiar, unfamiliar, cumbersome and distant Kiswahili translates to “Long live the King”.
But is that how Kiswahili speakers in Eastern and Central Africa would say Long Live the Queen (because our queen Beyonce deserves the best and longest life in our world that she runs and manages single-handedly)? Do we even have a Long Live the Queen or King dynamic in Swahili culture? In what context was it used? How did the Swahili wish long life on their leaders? What was the language? What was the ritual? When was it necessary and appropriate to do so without consequences? What was the protocol? Who could do it? Was it the same for foreigners and two-day visitors?
I don’t know.
I just know “Uishi kwa muda mrefu mfalme,” doesn’t slap (me) as I feel it would if it was said in the dialect of a pre-2019 or even a 2019 Kiswahili speaker from Congo, Uganda, Tanzania or Kenya’s Mombasa-Nairobi-Kisumu-Nakuru. For a fact, none of it would be the same. I say 2019 because if the new music they used in the film was very, very 2019-esque then the language could have also__***__.
But anyway, how a Kiswahili speaker in Nairobi would say “Uishi kwa muda mrefu mfalme,” with our Kisawhili mbaya(s) cha Bara or our many Sheng’s, sheng’etones and sheng’mbotovs is potentially mind-blowing and chaotic in a very beautiful nuanced way. How do we speak our Englishes and Kiswahilis? It’s important to get it right. It has to be archived and documented with the highest level of precision by everyone on the planet who wants to fuck with it…including me and you.
Disney and Beyonce can get that translated in a way that fits their scripts or tracks but then it will take someone like me, born into Kiswahili cha Bara, roughly three years to actually hear it. It won’t sound familiar the first time. And I believe there is a best-interest there in the process that thinks it will resonate but it doesn’t, for me.
I explored this dynamic in my short story Basket of Deplorables when I referenced Disney Junior’s Lion Guard which is a Lion King based series whose Kiswahili dialogue really doesn’t flow with spoken Kiswahili. Like the character Beshte’s name is pronounced so differently from how we say it in Sheng’. There are other things but due to unavoidable and well-meaning word count restrictions I cannot expound but you can find bits of the show on YouTube. I also don’t want drama. This is all fair comment based on things that have been done to a language whose Nairobisms are the only thing I may have some level of authority on because I was born into it that way.
And I use Kiswahili and its many Nairobisms and Englishes in my writing that way; with that level of confidence, knowing that I will be understood without a side-eye. Which then leads to critics and peers claiming I write really great dialogue, for my short stories.
How do I do it? It’s a simple idea. That if it’s not relatable it will not be timeless.
This is followed by a lot of research. In a very non-academic way. I use public transport and listen to everything I can hear inside and outside the matatu. For Nairobians that means the music, how the weird asshole seated next to you in full sexual harassment style is breathing before asking for his change in the most-polite way like he is not a bad man, the mum trying to calm her crying baby who can’t believe he is stuck in an object that is on a floor that moves, and the police officer knocking the driver’s side mirror and saying things that will make the driver want to cuss but can’t.
I go to the market. Names of things change. Names of money change. Names of market blocks will change based on what fruit or vegetable is in season. The pandemic has made ginger, lemons and garlic very popular, different people will use different language to convince you to buy. Most of it is hilarious and original so you buy because you will use those exact words on someone close to convince them to drink dawa and they will think you are so witty. Some of the language is morbid and involves someone who died of Covid because their immunity was shit, you don’t want to die because you are a writer who is also a single parent and there is no one on this blue earth you can trust to take care of you child if anything ever happened to you. So you buy more than you actually need. Then you carry that new language of fear with you for months until you find a way to release it into your work so it can flabbergast everyone and comfort those who thought they were the only ones that had been to that market and been told, “Ongeza katamarind pia ndio usilale ICU tukuchangie Mpesa zakukutoa.” But now Corona is ‘over’, imeisha, so how are they selling ginger, lemons, garlic, and tamarind. I have to go back and find out.
I listen to the children playing outside. When they are quizzing each other and one of them gets the answer wrong and a random, “Unafikiria na mapaja,” has me and them in stiches. The idea of someone thinking with their thighs instead of their brains is so big and open that I can only imagine where the child who said it got it from. That origin question is a whole short story in itself.
Aside from the eavesdropping research I listen to contemporary storytellers a lot. Abel Mutua on YouTube is my favorite with his series’ Mkurugenzi Diastories, Headline Hitters, Young & Stupid and every other thing he does there. He is the best storyteller I know right now just for how he uses language and his setup and lighting make it feel like he is literally talking to you and you alone. His focus is always on connecting through language and shared experience. Making sure no one forgets what he said because he said it in a way that is familiar to all of us and our lived experiences.
Abel has also written or been involved in some of my favorite Kenyan television shows and his ability to create relatable stories is admirable. I do get jealous sometimes, as a writer, because Wadau how can he even do all that, just him and his brain?
Local shows like Pete and Maria have also been a great guide on how to write dialogue. The most recent telenovela Sultana is my new obsession because the story is very original with a blind character as the lead. It reminds me of the Mexican soap Esmeralda but also not because the language and storylines are very specific to Mombasa in the 90s and today that there is no way Esmeralda could even have been an inspiration more than a decade later. I love that.
Sultana also has in recent episodes spun-off the main character of Maria and the writers have not changed her Nairobi accent or how she speaks Kiswahili in the most authentic Kitaa way. To see the reality of how a person from Bara can communicate with a person from Pwani without changing their dialect and accents and still understand each other without judgment is truly how it feels when I go to Mombasa for holidays and just talk my conspicuously disarranged language. If anyone of them tried to adopt to my Nairobisims I would be offended, and vice versa. It would feel like mockery. And I appreciate the fact that the writers of Sultana understand this and have not distorted the authenticity of the different versions of a language we all love. It would be so weird for Maria to resurface in Mombasa and out of nowhere speak or try to speak fluent Kiswahili.
This uncanny understanding by Kenyan scriptwriters of how we speak Kiswahili and English depending on where we are from or how we live is seen in other shows like Hulaballo Estate, Varshita, Sue na Jonnie, Njoro wa Uba, Selina, Kina and also Country Queen which thankfully includes rural Kiswahilisms.
Also look at me and witness my making up of new isms, tones and mbotovs as I write this.
Last but not at all the least it’s the music. Nyashinski, Mejja, Matata, every single Rhumba, Kapuka, Genge, and Gengetone artiste. In listening to their wordplay and referencing to old and new language you can only respect it, learn from it, get inspired by it and then leave it alone because the nuances and implications in song can backfire very dangerously in a fictional setting. Just listen when you are writing or when you have a block. It’s sort of like reading other authors but making sure not to copy style, language and form. It’s school. At least for me. I learn how to stop, how to not repeat shit after making the point, how to stay in rhythm from start to finish, how to maintain an idea, how to make things timeless, and how to entertain because why write dull stuff. For whose torture?
In conclusion my dialogue works because I write how I speak. I insist the idea definitely is that if it’s not relatable it will not be timeless. But how you translate that idea is by living in your people so you can represent them accurately in your work.
And I am way past wordcount…
Linda Musita is a fiction writer in Nairobi. In 2022 she was selected as a Writer of Note by The de Groot Foundation, through their Courage to Write Grant, for her upcoming novella project Immaculate Pandemic. Her debut collection of short stories, Mtama Road, will be published by Down River Road (DRR) this year. Linda’s short fiction has also been published by DRR, Jalada, Lolwe, Enkare Review, Kikwetu, Fresh Manure, Bloomsbury UK in the Africa 39 Anthology, Goethe Institut in Fresh Paint Vol. 2, among others.One of her short stories Squad was among Brittle Paper’s 79 Notable Pieces of 2017 under the Fiction Category and a top 10 nominee for the Fiction Award in the Inaugural Brittle Paper Literary Awards for The Best of African Literature Online. The Africa 39 Project identified her as one of Africa’s most promising writers under the age of 40 with the potential and talent to define trends in the development of literature from Africa and the African diaspora