Lost Placenta’s, Seminars with Diarrhoea and Ancient Greek


I’m in a small nursery classroom which is being used on Saturdays for Sunday School teachers. I’m teaching how to get the message across using one idea and one major theme. We are somewhere near the airport in Dar es Salaam and it’s very humid so our mabati (iron) roof is making us all pour with sweat. Our major theme was ‘Lost and Found’. After asking the 6 teachers who could think of a good illustration from the Bible for Lost and found we chose the lost sheep. It was the end of the teaching time, people were getting tired, and I was trying in my best Kiswahili of the time to explain how to tell the account of the Lost Sheep when they started to smile. Oh oh, I thought, I’ve made some mistake but what was it? I carried on and soon a few more stifled giggles. When you’re tired anything can be funny.

After the teachers had gone, the deacon Baba (father) Pattie wrote a word on the blackboard and very kindly asked ‘Dada (sister) Penny do you know what this word is?’ It was the word placenta, so I’d been teaching them about the lost placenta! Baba Pattie was so helpful.

I had arrived in Dar es Salaam ready to work with a specific pastor and his church to help develop the children’s ministry and teachers. When I arrived, the pastor had already developed motor neuron disease and was having difficulty with speech. As he was the only person in his family that knew English well, I realised I’d have to go on a crash course in Kiswahili and not only that but get to know the place pretty quickly. The pastor couldn’t walk by that stage either.

I went to enrol in a language school in town and the pastor’s wife told me “Penny, if you want to learn our language, live with us, eat with us, talk to us, get to know us”. That was a good lesson. Ugali, mlenda, dagaa, kisamvu, became favourite foods. In the evenings we would watch the news and play a game. If the news was in English I had to translate what I knew into Kiswahili and if it was in Kiswahili, Mama (mother) had to translate it into English.

Many times this has reminded me of my dad, who was a teacher of classics and ancient Greek. He had always said that if you want to go to another country you must learn their language, culture, and history etc. I saw this in action when we went to Crete. One day on a hot journey from the East to the West of the island we needed a relief stop. My dad stopped at a house and asked in Greek if his daughters could use their facilities. The gentleman was so impressed with Dad’s Greek that he gave him cucumbers from his garden and oranges for the journey too. When we were in the west of the island however, Dad and my sister went to walk through the Samaria gorge, a beautiful area of southern Crete. They arrived very late at the other end of the gorge needing a ferry lift to another place where they could then get a lift. At that point, Dad’s Modern Greek gave way to Ancient classical Greek which must have been like Chaucerian English to us! The love of languages runs in our veins I think.

I’ve not had that much success with English when younger. I was always telling mum I was going over the road to see the nice lady Flitipuss (Felicity) and that my newest best friend at school was Celery. Well that’s what she said. I asked her of her name and she said itsssselery. (No it really was Hilary)

Back to Dar es Salaam, and Kiswahili. After I had been there two years trying to improve my Kiswahili, I went all the way to Ulyankulu to teach some Sunday school teachers there. The dear pastor with whom I stayed, broke the news to me. ‘We have no interpreter my dear Penny so you will have to use your Kiswahili’. EEEEEkkkkkk  he prayed for me and sat with me while I taught. I’m sure I made so many mistakes that they must have laughed a lot. However what I began to realise is that when you are out of your limits and you know that you cannot possibly do it. God can. This is something I discovered about communication the human way, and communication God’s way. He can take the stumbling efforts of a little child’s broken sentences and bring meaning and life by the power of His Holy Spirit because He is the Living Word. Those lovely teachers at Ulyankulu are now all back in Burundi but at that time, they encouraged me so much and also taught me some Kirundi and were absolutely thrilled to hear me say ‘Mwake’ Mwidiwe, ‘Imana shimwe. (Good morning, good evening and Praise the Lord.)

At one time in that church near the airport, I remember coming out of a morning worship which was all in Kiswahili thinking I’ll never learn to understand all this. I went out crying but the pastor stopped me took me by both hands and prayed for me. The next week, I had to go to the nursery school to teach the nursery children and I saw the elders’ wife Mama Lightness. I will never forget her kindness at that moment. She took my hand and in very slow Kiswahili told me “Penny this language is difficult for you but don’t give up. We love you and we are praying for you”. They did too, and it was from that time I started becoming more able to understand and speak more.

Eventually I moved out of that family home and lived in a Christian hostel ran by a Mama whose language was Kisukuma. It wasn’t so much that she taught me the Kisukuma but she taught me to slow down a pace and greet people properly. Even If I was in a hurry, if she saw me “Oh Penny, Mwangaluka (good morning) habari za kuamka?” (how did you wake up)? At first it was a bit of a trial but I realised how fussed I’d been and how important it is to greet. This is part of language too. We can learn perfect Kiswahili, crossing all the t’s and dotting the i’s but without the actions accompanying it doesn’t bring the language to life.

I’m so grateful to Mama M for teaching me these things.

It was no longer practical to travel all the way from the hostel to the church I had been worshipping and teaching at. The Sunday school teachers were at a stage where they could do the work very well without me (most likely much better). I moved to another church and also began to be involved with Scripture Union Tanzania. We would organize seminars for teachers, or pastors would call us and they would organize them. At one time, Luka my Mwenzangu wafanya kazi (work mate) and I were waiting for many replies from pastors and others who had organized seminars and at the last moment they cancelled. I was quite frustrated and told Luka that they had been cancelled. “Oh Penny don’t say that word!” he looked half shocked and half puzzled. Oh no what have I said? I thought again. I told our friend who was one of the organizers of the seminars and he laughed very heartily. “Penny you’ve just told me the seminar had diarrhoea!” He very kindly corrected my Kiswahili.

When you make these sorts of mistakes you know you’ll never make them again.

I’ve since done most of my teaching about children’s ministry in Kiswahili. I’ve made many mistakes but we often do an evaluation at the end of the course and teachers can answer the questions anonymously. One of the questions is would you prefer this teacher to speak through an interpreter, or do you want her to speak directly in Kiswahili. The answer is nearly 80% please speak in Kiswahili. Isn’t it interesting, they’d rather have broken Kiswahili of mine than an interpretation. I ask some of them why this is. The answer is that for them it speaks to their heart. (I don’t know if they’re trying to be nice and thinking I want to hear this).

When I travel on the local busses and if the people feel talkative, they love the fact that Mzungu huyu speaks Kiswahili. (This white person.) One day on the bus, I got on and had to stand which is fairly usual at five in the evening. I chatted a bit to the conductor and then heard the following conversations in Kiswahili. “Oh she knows Kiswahili then.” “Oh yes, she’s a missionary, she often travels on the buses and she’s not afraid to stand.” (Not standing for Jesus but in the bus.)  “Well”, I thought, “if that’s their definition of a missionary I don’t mind at all”.

Learning a language is living with people, eating their meals, drinking tea together, sitting or standing in the dala dala (taxi), walking and chatting, buying fruit and thanking the fruit sellers in Kihaa (most of the fruit sellers in town come from Kigoma and speak this language). No, I don’t know all of it, just greetings and thankyous.

With Luka’s help, I have written a small manual for teachers in Kiswahili. When I teach, I learn from the teachers and anything written on a blackboard or on paper is Kiswahili.

Some people say, “why do you bother learning and speaking Kiswahili when most people there are trying to learn English”? Well firstly it’s courtesy to learn the language. Jesus, when He came to earth learnt and used the language of those He walked with. Eventually, the disciples learnt more of the language of Heaven through being with Jesus.

The language you are born with carries special weight of understanding to many who have it. My colleague Luka, was given a Kinyakyusa Bible. He speaks Kiswahili but also his home language is Kinyakyusa (from Mbeya region south of Tanzania). He said, “Penny I’ll now read you the beginning of Genesis in my own tongue”. He hadn’t seen this before in print and he never got beyond the first verse because he was in tears. God was speaking to him in his very own language. “Oh Penny, this is so special. I must give this Bible to my Father, it will speak to him.” My friend who works with SIL organized a teaching day for people learning Kiraangi, the language of Kondoa district of Tanzania. They had been writing an alphabet and had begun writing some of the books of the Bible in Kiraangi. In the classroom there were many elderly Kiraangi speakers who had never seen their language written down. The teachers had gone through the various letters and combinations of sounds and were getting them to read sentences aloud. One of the elderly men started to read he got more and more exited and started smiling and laughing. he was saying “oh, heee wait a minute I know these words, eeehh this is, no it can’t be it’s why yes its my language it’s kiraangi but you are a young man (pointing to the 40 year old or more teacher), how did you know this? Why this is MY language? Heeeees.” At this point many people were smiling in recognition.  

To use a language is a way of living, eating, meeting, worshipping, praying, communicating.

My dad was absolutely right. What ever mistakes we make in the language is not important as the desire to communicate.

I remember a long time ago working with children who were profoundly multiply handicapped. Many times a year there would be what we called multi-disciplinary meetings. I would sit in these meetings as an assistant nurse and key worker of the child who was being discussed. I remember that the first time I encountered this, it was like being in a room of strangers all talking totally different languages yet they all had the same aim for the one child but saw it differently. When I was teaching children with severe learning difficulties we had similar meetings but thankfully we had a head teacher who could translate into simple English.

Communication is more than the language it’s living and being with Tanzanians. I’ll never be a Tanzanian but now, I’m not really a completely English person either. What I pray for is the love of God in the power of the Holy Spirit to enable to bring to people what He has given me to give to them. More often than not, I find myself being blessed in return by what I’m given too. Communication is relationship. Kiswahili is a most beautiful language so is Punjabi, Greek, Italian, Urdu, Kinyakyusa, Kirundi etc. etc. The beauty is in the people who bring that language to me and you. God make us willing to be those bridge builders and cross bearers.

Mtumishi wako katika shamba ya Bwana. (Your servant in the Lord’s garden.)

Penny Elliot, December 2008