From the mouths of Malawians

jhr Educational Officer Ali Schofield struggles to wrap her tongue around Malawi's widely-spoken Chichewa language. Photo by Nina Lex.

From my past travel experiences I’ve learned that the best way to ease the stress that culture shock can bring is to first tackle the language barrier. Luckily, English is an official language in Malawi, but on the streets and everywhere else in the mid to southern region of the country you’ll mostly hear Chichewa and it wasn’t long before I came to learn a few key words and phrases.

Zikomo“Thank you”

William of Wykeham said, “Manners maketh man” and I believe that manners also maketh a pleasant foreigner. In the essence of being stereotypically polite Canadians, this was the first word my fellow interns and I learned when we arrived in Malawi.

If someone helps you off the minibus, you thank them.

When you finish a business exchange with someone in the market, you thank them.

If someone teaches you a new word in Chichewa, you thank them!

Thanking Malawians in their own language can show aextra gratitude and will usually make the person smile.

Mzungu (plural azungu) – “White Person”

While at times it’s unnerving to bereferred to simply as “white person”by market vendors as they announce your arrival, one Malawian told me, “When you become a part of the community, they won’t call you that any more.”

Luckily this has become the case in most places, though being called a mzungu is quite endearing when a child looks at you from the secure chitenje (pronounced “chi-ten-jay”, a piece of cloth) on his or her mother’s back and says it very quietly, eyes wide with a degree of bewilderment.

Bo – “Good”

Bo is a great word, for it is both a question and – more often than not – an answer. Often on the streets you’ll hear a greeting go something like this:

Man 1: “Bo bo?”
Man 2: “Bo.”
Man 1: “Shap!”

And ‘shap’, of course, is just a less formal was of saying ‘bo’.

Sorry, sorry! – Well, “Sorry.”

The actual word for ‘sorry’ in Chichewa is pepani, but I haven’t so much as heard a single utterance of the word in the two months I’ve been in Malawi. When we first arrived, I thought the occasions on which it was said were somewhat odd.

My very first night in Blantyre the other interns and I were getting something to eat. Headed for the table, I attempted to step over our luggage but tripped, and with fleeting grace, fell flat on the ground.

“Sorry, sorry!!” a waiter hollered from across the patio.I dusted myself off and thought, ‘Why the heck is he apologizing! Nice guy had nothing to do with it!’

Weeks later, I was walking home from work and there was a man carrying a hoe and some lumber on his shoulder. We exchanged greetings and a few seconds later when he turned down the lane his hoe, he became caught on a pole and nearly fell.

“Sorry, sorry!!” I yelled over to him.

It was then I realized that saying sorry isn’t necessarily a personal apology here, it’s a way of giving your regrets to that person, as if to say, “Sorry your hoe got caught on that pole and you nearly fell! I hope you’re alright!”

What I’ve learned from these Chichewa phrases is that Malawians are a kind and friendly people. If you are eager to learn their language, they are eager to teach – and the greater interest you show, the warmer this heart of Africa becomes.

One thought on “From the mouths of Malawians

  1. Pingback: From the Mouths of Malawians | letters to betsy

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