Saturday, 27 November 2010


Watching an old James Bond film last night, conversation in our bilingual household naturally turned to hairy chests. You mean "garden love", said Mama J, "bustani ya mapenzi" (lit. 'garden of love'). I'd never heard this expression before, let alone any special term or euphemism for chest hair in Swahili, so made a beeline for the nearest search engine. I missed the ending of Thunderball, but did find a handful of examples on the Swahili blogs, which have become a fascinating source for exploring contemporary Tanzanian usage. The form in general use, it seems, is English 'love garden', Swahili-ised as lavu gadeni. Mama J confirmed that in her experience it's the English expression (back-to-front or otherwise) that's widely used, rather than its literal Swahili translation, bustani ya mapenzi. "Why 'love garden'?", I asked, and she mimed the act of a love-struck woman caressing the luxuriant growth on her lover's chest. Unfortunately my own weedy patch is no match for Sean Connery's chest wig (aka rug), and I was rejected as a subject for further live demonstration.

Setting aside my disappointment, I'm still intrigued by the origin of this euphemism, whose closest equivalent in modern British parlance is 'love rug', though we also employ horticultural metaphors when describing chest hair, as indeed I've just done myself. I guess it says something that our own mocking idioms are based on the image of manufactured products (rugs and wigs) rather than natural and organic processeses (wild and cultivated growth). It isn't difficult to spot the difference and imagine how a cultural theorist might explain it. (Suggested reading: La pensée sauvage (trans. The Savage Mind) and subsequent works by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Lakoff and Johnson's Metaphors We Live By, and any number of articles produced by The Postmodern Generator.)

Searching the Internet Living Swahili Dictionary for bustani ya mapenzi (no luck) and related terms, I stumbled across the likely etymology of another fuzzy euphemism that's always puzzled me. I also first heard this from Mama J, who uses malaika, lit. 'angel(s)' (originally a loanword from Arabic), to describe fine body hair or down, like the wispy hairs on a woman's arm. (For the sake of linguistic precision I should have said earlier that Mama J speaks the Unguja dialect of Swahili, having grown up and spent half of her adult life in Zanzibar town.) From angels to body hair seems like a big conceptual leap, but the online dictionary supplies the missing link by indicating that babies and small children are referred to as angels (malaika) as well as the soft downy hair on their bodies. So it's a simple extension of meaning that had been eluding me all these years since Mama J became the mama of our own little angel (not a pet name that I'd normally use in English, but I use it to bring home the linguistic parallel), malaika and all.


Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude 1962. La pensée sauvage. Paris: Librarie Plon. (trans. 1966. The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.)

Sunday, 21 November 2010


Woolworths R.I.P.
As we all know now, Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton in October during a private holiday at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in the northern foothills of Mount Kenya. Intense media speculation about the exact location and circumstances of the marriage proposal has been accompanied by interviews with Ian Craig, founding Executive Director and now Strategic Advisor of the conservancy, and other staff, all of whom have remained understandably discreet. Having worked there during his gap year, William has been a regular visitor to Lewa, and royal aides were once forced to deny speculation in the press that he was romantically involved with Jessica (Jecca) Craig, Ian's daughter.

The wildlife conservancy began life as a smaller rhino sanctuary carved out of the ranch of Ian's parents David and Delia Craig in 1983. I visited Lewa Downs in February 1992, before all of their lands had been declared a conservancy (for more on Lewa's history click here). I was working on a consultancy in Isiolo district (see Walsh 1992), and joined a group of colleagues one Saturday afternoon to visit the Craig family. We arrived unnanounced: David was away at a wedding, but we found  Delia and their son William (Ian's brother) at home. My abiding memory of this visit is drinking tea with Delia and talking about the threat of poaching and the need to erect fencing to keep the poachers out. I was particulary struck when, in the course of our polite conversation, Delia referred to the surrounding African population as "the indigenae". I'd never heard this expression before, and had to conceal my amusement: my immediate thought was that this is how one might refer to a barbaric tribe on the frontiers of the Empire, Roman, British, or whatever remnant of it survived on the Lewa Downs. Indigenae is of course Latin for 'natives', 'aborigines', 'autochthones'; it was used by Tacitus and other classical authors, and even by Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights. Although its use by Delia that day may have been entirely innocent, I couldn't help but feel that it might be given more negative connotations.*

This was certainly the case with other expressions used by the descendants of European settlers to refer to their African bretheren. When I scribbled "INDIGENII" (sic) in my Isiolo notebook, I also wrote down a term that was said to be more widely used in the post-settler community: "NON-REFLECTORS". This, I was told, was a humorous allusion to the fact that Africans were harder to see when driving at night: their dark skin didn't reflect the light from car headlights as well as the skin of white people. This etymology further implied that if "non-reflectors" were run over at night, then was their fault rather than that of the (white) drivers who couldn't (be bothered to) pick them out. Be that as it may, "non-reflectors" is clearly a racial label or slur that many Kenyans will find offensive. Let me add, though, that I don't have any evidence for its continuing or common use in Kenya: it may be that it has fallen out of favour since I recorded it in 1992.**

A much more widespread practice was, and probably still is, use of the Swinglish phrase "the watu" to refer to Africans. Watu of course means 'people' in Swahili, but the addition of the English definite article turns this innocuous word into a racial label with negative connotations, depending on how it is used. As we can infer from the etymology and history of the infamous N-word and its use in English, sociolinguistic context is everything. I'm reminded of my own reactions to being called an mzungu ('white', 'light-skinned person, especially of European origin'). I don't mind it at home and among friends, and might use it in jest myself. But I'm not thrilled when youths and adults shout it at me in the street (I can forgive young children). This annoying habit has spawned the production of T-shirts for tourists with the ironic banner "MZUNGU" and elaborations thereof. I haven't been in a hurry to buy one of these. But I might be tempted to wear one written in Latin.

* Delia Craig (née Douglas) inherited the ranch at Lewa Downs from her stepfather, Will Powys, who was the youngest brother of the novelist John Cowper Powys and an enterprising farmer. Her mother, Elizabeth Powys (née Cross, ex-Douglas) was the hard-working granddaughter of a Viscount who became a supporter of multiracialism in Africa before the more radical agenda of decolonisation took hold (these and other details of family history are taken from Elspeth Huxley's Out in the Midday Sun). Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is now noted as conservation programme with strong community development and education components, a model for private conservation initiatives and the reinvention of 'white farmers' as ecotourist operators.

** Des Bravington tells me that this expression is also known in South Africa, and it may be that it was originally imported into Kenya from the south of the continent.


Brontë, Emily 2003 [1847]. Wuthering Heights. London: Penguin Books.

Huxley, Elspeth 1985. Out in the Midday Sun: My Kenya. London: Chatto & Windus.

Szapary, Peter 2000. The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya: A case study. In Herbert H. T. Prins, Jan Geu Grootenhuis and Thomas T. Dolan (eds.) Wildlife Conservation by Sustainable Use. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 35-50.

Walsh, Martin 1992. Community Participation in Isiolo District: Past Initiatives and Options for the Future. Annex 4 in The Isiolo District Support Programme, report submitted by Masdar Ltd. to the Overseas Development Administration (ODA), London.

Sunday, 14 November 2010


At my desk in Utengule: shoebox in the foreground
Last weekend my daughter asked me if I had any empty shoe boxes: she needed one to fill with odds and sods for an annual charity appeal. There is of course a pile of old shoe boxes in one corner of my study, waiting for the day when I abandon computers and manufactured filing systems in favour of the cheap and cheerful homemade solutions of yore. My most treasured shoe boxes lie at the bottom of the pile. One of them is filled with the slips of paper on which I recorded my Sangu (shisango) dictionary in the field; the other with subject and person indexes of my field notes compiled in the first month or so after my return to Cambridge in early 1982.

I indexed my chronologically written and organised notes at the suggestion of my research supervisor, Ray Abrahams, and having never word-processed them remain eternally grateful for this simple piece of advice. Compiling a dictionary using a card index or slips of paper was a time-tested practice, as afficianados of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and James Murray's 'quotation slips' will know. Alison Redmayne, my ethnographic mentor, suggested I use index cards for recording Sangu when I first visited her in Oxford in April 1980. She also later recommended that I get hold of a copy of Wilfred Whiteley's 'Suggestions for recording a Bantu language in the field', an article based on a brief study of the Fipa language, in which the same method is suggested  ("It is probably easiest to begin by collecting a word-list on cards", 1964: 2). At the same time she sent me photocopies of the slips of paper on which she'd made her own small collection of Sangu vocabulary in the 1960s. And afterwards she wrote "If you do not have a filing box and cardboard index cards you can make your own index cards and use a biscuit tin - that is how my Kihehe dictionary started" (letter from Oxford dated 11 July 1980). While writing this note I asked Alison for more details: she recalls quartering quarto-sized sheets of paper to make her own cards or rather slips. For many years now she's kept these in a metal index card file drawer. This is the only copy of her Hehe dictionary, a language which very few Europeans can speak like her.  

I ended up with a shoe box. I've forgotten now whether I took this with me to Tanzania in July 1980 or obtained it when I was out there. New shoes were available in the country in 1980 but like a lot of basic goods were in short supply. Stationery, however, was essential to the functioning of the socialist state, and I had no trouble getting hold of pads of plain paper slips. Indeed there are still some unused pads in my Sangu shoe box with the price marked on them: four shillings each. Once I was installed in the village of Utengule-Usangu I set about recording Sangu vocabulary on these slips. At the same time I was learning Swahili, the primary language of my research in this increasingly polyethnic area. But collecting Sangu words and phrases provided me with endless pleasure. Even on the leanest of days I was sure to hear or elicit new items that I scribbled down on scraps of paper before transferring them to the thin slips of paper that were filed away in the box on my desk in alphabetical order within appropriate morphological categories. Let me hasten to add that I didn't study the language as systematically as I might if I knew what I do now, or my research depended on a professional description of it. To make matters worse, I've got cloth ears and struggle to hear vowel-length or distinguish tones and stress, and I didn't mark any of these. Indeed I didn't really understand the pitch accent system of Sangu until the mid-1990s (when I had time to work through and build on the work of my predecessor in Utengule, the White Father-turned-linguist Jacques Bilodeau), and a later attempt to elicit the finer points of tense and aspect in the language fizzled out in frustration. But my rough and ready dictionary was adequate for everyday ethnographic purposes, including the sociolinguistic analysis of Sangu greetings and titles that became one of the chapters of my thesis (Chapter 5, "The theory and practice of misreading greetings", 1984: 126-157).

After I'd written my thesis on the Phoenix mainframe computer in Cambridge, I typed up most of my Sangu dictionary (Walsh 1985), though I didn't get round to including all of the linguistic information from the shoe box and other notes that I'd made on language use, including transcriptions of songs and other tape recordings. And although I've since done further work on particular parts of the lexicon, including Sangu plant and animal names (e.g. Walsh 1995; 1996), I haven't made any attempt to incorporate additional terms and definitions in the dictionary, which I no longer have in electronic form (except as a scan of the computer printout). Nonetheless, I'm pleased that the contents of my old shoe box have been of some use to subsequent researchers, including linguists working for the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) (e.g. Tlustos 2000). For some years SIL researchers have used their own electronic Shoebox, "a computer program that helps field linguists and anthropologists integrate various kinds of text data".  As the blurb says, this programme "is especially useful for helping researchers build a dictionary as they use it to analyze and interlinearize text. The name Shoebox recalls the use of shoe boxes to hold note cards on which definitions of words were written in the days before researchers could use computers in the field." Such is progress, but I'd hate to be parted from my own tatty box of linguistic history.


Bilodeau, Jacques 1979. Sept contes Sangu dans leur contexte culturel et linguistique. Elements de phonologie du Sangu, langue Bantou de Tanzania. Textes des contes avec traduction et notes. Thèse de Doctorat de Troisième Cycle, Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris.

Tlustos, Martin 2000. Draft Sangu dictionary (incomplete). Unpublished ms., Mbeya, December 2000.

Walsh, Martin. 1984. The Misinterpretation of Chiefly Power in Usangu, South-west Tanzania. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge.

Walsh, Martin 1985. Shisango Dictionary. Unpublished ms. (computer printout), Cambridge, June 1985.

Walsh, Martin 1995. Snakes on the Usangu Plains: an introduction to Sangu ethnoherpetology. East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin 25 (3): 38-43.

Walsh, Martin 1996. Fish and fishing in the rivers and wetlands of Usangu. East Africa Natural History Society Bulletin 26 (3/4): 42-47.

Whiteley, W. H. 1964. Suggestions for recording a Bantu language in the field. Tanzania Notes and Records 62: 1-19.