Home > English, Kenya, school. > Getting used to Kenyanese

Getting used to Kenyanese

“Sorry!” When in Kenya, I hear this all the time, even when the speaker had done nothing to be sorry for.

I have to say that I am clumsy. I can trip over my own feet while standing still, or even sitting down – no kidding. And it is not the alcohol – honest – OK, not all the time.

So, I will be walking down the road and trip on a matchstick or whatever. “Sorry,” my companion would say. It took me a long time to understand this. There is no real equivalent in English English … er that is English as spoken in Great Britain.

Another one is “Yes” when we would say “No”. Because the speaker is saying “Yes, I agree with what you are saying,” as opposed to “No, I don’t think so either.”


But once I came to terms with these little nuances, I soon found that most Kenyans, even those upcountry, speak excellent English. And the kids in Nairobi speak better English than many kids here. They speak grammatically correct English – innit – and don’t interject any “Y’ know”, “er”, “like”, and certainly don’t swear – well, not in my company and not in English, anyway.

I sometimes wonder how a well-spoken Kenyan could possibly survive over here, where we beat up our own language until it is an unrecognisable pulp!

Ask a Kenyan kid “How was school today?” and the reply will be. “It was good (or bad). We did math, english and geography.”

Here, the answer would be something like, “Er, well, y’know, it was, like, yeah, good. Innit.”

And to think that I was considering bringing my girlfriend and her children over here! No way. I don’t want to ruin their education – and their good grasp of the English language.

Categories: English, Kenya, school.
  1. June 29, 2008 at 07:26

    hehe…I’m Kenyan and had no idea that those two little habitual “sayings” could be confusing to an English speaking Englishman lol…I get it now. I won’t stop using them, but I’ll probably smile everytime I do use them.

  2. June 29, 2008 at 07:45

    Hi Gal AfricanaThese are just two of the many that used to confuse me. Particularly interesting during business meetings!DM

  3. September 17, 2008 at 08:19

    Hi, when we say “sorry” in the context you described, we are not asking for forgiveness. “Sorry” is used as a translation of “pole”, a kiswahili word used to express empathy. We use it when someone else gets hurt, even if it had nothing to do with us. I live in the states and I find it very strange that you can trip or fall and get no sympathies from those around.

  4. September 17, 2008 at 08:28

    Hi, I realise this, but it was strange at first. But this is what makes Kenyans so special. As you say, we don’t offer sympathy as you do.And I am not knocking Kenyans, on the contrary, some of us could learn a few lessons from you!

  5. March 14, 2009 at 13:36

    It is a shame that the English language does not have an equivalent of “pole.”When you sneeze you can get a “bless you” but when you fall and crack your skull, all you get is “are you okay?” as if there would be any doubt of how you are doing in that state.I got tired of people telling me “it is not your fault” each time I said “sorry” to show empathy.It gets even more interesting in Tanzania…”pole kwa kazi” which translate literally to “sorry for work” meant as a way of showing appreciation and emphathy to someone who comes home after a long day of work.Needless to say, I wouldn’t try that in America especially in the middle of a recession!

  6. March 15, 2009 at 10:30

    @ ErinHow true! The word pole! is just one example of how East African language is richer than English.As I said in an earlier reply, we could have learned a thing or two from Kenya in the past, rather than just benefiting from its material riches.After all, we adopted many words from our “colonies”, e.g. safari from you, bungalow from India, etc.I hope it is not too late, for me in any case. When in Kenya, I try to live “Kenyan”, with Kenyans. I don’t expect any favours because my skin is pale,, but unfortunately, I get them anyway. Mind you, it is useful when boarding a matatu. “Make room for the Mzungu” is the usual cry – very embarrassing.

  7. March 15, 2009 at 19:35

    3 reasons why a mzungu might get special treatment in Kenya:as a foreigner, a guest, an outsider, Kenyans might treat you with a little more patience and sensitivity than they would a regular guy from around the way. In most cultures, hospitality to strangers, visitors, outsiders is very highly regarded.But on the other hand, a “pale skin” is normally equated to wealth. In this case you receive special treatment with the hopes that something is going to come out of your pocket…quid pro quo.Lastly, there is the remnants of the mental sickness inflicted by years of colonization. There are Africans who automatically think themselves subservient to white people. To a liberally minded white person, it might get a little uncomfortable see people fawn over you all the time when all you want is to freely mingle and feel as equals.

  8. March 15, 2009 at 19:38

    by the way, i like the work you are doing in Nyanza.Check out http://www.wahomefoundation.com

  9. March 15, 2009 at 23:49

    @ErinYes, Kenyans are courteous to visitors to their country, for which I am truly grateful.But I try not to act the tourist – after all, I’m not one.And yes, there are those who pander to me in the hope of a back-hander, especially kids. I don’t mind the kids. They soon learn that I am not there to give them sweets, but they remain friendly anyway.The last point is worrying. I have certainly come across it, but find that once people get to know me, it disappears, thankfully.However, I still have to get used to my advanced years being the sole reason for deference being shown to me.As to equality, I doubt that I will ever achieve that. I have to learn so much, and I doubt that I will ever be equal to a Kenyan.

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