What do the word “simian” and the name “Simeon” have in common, aside from a similar pronunciation? You guessed it – nothing at all, unless Simeon lives in the cage in a zoo or on a display plinth in a museum of extinct apes. If I were named Simeon, I would be very sad indeed if anyone were to laugh out loud every time they mentioned my name, especially if the person is a native speaker of English.
I remember my Kenya days, reclining under the mango trees on the grass lawns around the Margaret Thatcher Library on the campus of Moi University, Eldoret, discussing words and languages. All of us were guys, men, so the topic inevitably led to the risqué. All I wanted really was a chance to gather knowledge about the Kiswahili language to add to my vocabulary, and until then, everything was going smoothly. I would come out in the morning, lay on the grass while my informant, Ng’ash, a photographer (whose name also rhymed with nyash) did his work and dealt with my endless list of questions at the same time. After going through a list of over four hundred words in Kiswahili with him and his other equally fascinating and mischievous co-photographers in that spot of the campus, I found that ngozi meant “skin”, pole pole meant the same as pele pele (go gently), kiboko meant “buffalo” whose skin is used to make what we called koboko (the whip), Mungu meant “God” and jana meant the same as àná (Yoruba for “yesterday”), among many other amazing similarities. I also found out that kuma meant “vagina”, and that moto meant “hot”. The joke Ng’ash liked to make was that the first time a Kenyan found himself in Japan, he could not get his mind off the fact that the institution he was enrolled in was called the Kumamoto University. Kuma in Japanese is a popular name for children, meaning “bear”.
And so in Washington DC in December, I found myself on a dinner table with half a dozen Tanzanians who dared me to prove to them how much of Swahili I spoke. I did, starting with the everyday ordinary words. But they kept egging me on and I told them that I had actually learnt the private words first while I was in Kenya, and that I still remembered them even though I found a dinner table the least appropriate place to discuss such things. They would have none of it so I said, “I know that mbooro is for penis. Do you believe me now? I know that one for females but the point is proven, no?” The boys looked surprised, and the girls kept giggling mischievously, now resolved not to let me off until I gave voice to their body parts as well. It was an embarrassing almost awkward moment. But I did, and then shared the joke about the Japanese University. What else I found out afterwards was how easier to mention the word for privates in another person’s language. When asked to tell them what they were in my language, I could only tell them the word for penis. For vagina, I referred them to the Nigerian women in the hall, and as I correctly guessed, none of them took up the challenge to ask.
What I also learnt at the table was that the Nigerian name “Uche” in Tanzanian Swahili also meant the same as kuma, and that every time they heard the Nigerian name while watching a soccer game, they were giggling aloud not for the style of his dribble or the grace of his feet. Since I found out in Kenya in 2005 that Titi means breasts (as in matiti in Swahili), and “titties” in American English, I’ve always wondered what my name means in all the languages of the world if there was a way I could go on and find out. In American English, it means “a dark carbonated drink with a secret formula bottled in cans and bottles.” Not bad. What does it mean in Chinese, Malay, Emai, Nepali, Farsi, Akan, Ikaan, Uwu or Arabic? Maybe I should ask Reham about the Arabic part. I hope the meaning would not be too x-rated for her to tell me. I also remember one of my class sessions last semester when we were discussing colours. I had written the Yoruba ways of expressing colour on the board, and it included pupa for “red”, bulu for “blue”, funfun for “white” and dudu for “black” among many others. By the end of the class, I was told by the students why of all the colours we learnt that day, they would most likely remember dudu for a longer time to come. In American English (slangs), the word doo-doo refers to excreta, they said. Talking with my Swahili friend recently about these, she told me that dudu in Swahili also means “a large insect”, in addition to being the word now used to refer to the HIV/AIDS virus. Very nice. So now, although eniyan means “person” in Yoruba, all of a sudden, I am never going to refer to myself as an eniyan dudu ever again! Not in America, and definitely not in Kenya.