I am not a linguist. My five years of Spanish with very little to show for it attests to that (although I will say that pedagogy is partially to blame).
I must have forgotten this when, during my TI interview, they asked me if I wanted to be placed in Kenya because of my prior knowledge of Kiswahili.
When I said I would prefer Rwanda for a new experience, I did not fully process that this would mean a new language.
One of the community organizers likens the relationship between Swahili and Kinyarwanda to that of English to French; when you know French/Kinyarwanda, it makes learning English/Swahili easier, in reverse it is of little value.
Thus, despite my knowledge of Swahili, here in Nkomangwa, they might as well be speaking French (which, incidentally, many of them do).
It is not that Swahili is of no use. For one, they borrow some Swahili phrases (karibu); so, when communication is a challenge, I will sometimes try the Swahili word and see if it works.
Most importantly, their grammatical structure and conjugation is actually quite similar, which helped me dissect the words/phrases we were taught to memorize.
The more Kinyarwanda I learn, the less certain I am if knowing Swahili is a benefit or deterrent, for many words are quite similar but with different letters (e.g. “to want” is kutaka in Swahili, guchaka in Kinyarwanda), creating a jumbled alphabet soup in my mind.
My mama seems to think that the volume of her voice is the key to me understanding. At dinner tonight, she is telling me a story and every time I say, “I don’t know,” she repeats the phrase louder. Normally, I end up resorting to saying yes in agreement or repeating the last
word, for my parroting often replaces the need for comprehension.
Tonight, though, she is not letting up. I call my sister to see if my mama’s story is one she can translate from her English from school.
As I call for Wasi, mama interrupts saying no Wasi, Ngyiranina. Assuming Wasi is not at the homestead, I call out this new word, wondering who or what is Ngyiranina. When my hollering achieves no results, I go outside to seek a translator in one of my siblings.
To my surprise, Wasi is there. Her and mama exchange words and go running into the house.
I remain outside and ask Jarod (who is also in secondary school and knows a bit of English) what Ngyiranina means.
“Wasi!” he exclaims and an ID card is produced with my sister’s legal name.
In comprehension, I yell, “Wasi ni (is) Ngyiranina?!” and my siblings burst into applause.
I return to the house to relay to my sister what I just learned about her. But, she is nowhere to be found. My calling attracts the others and soon, we are all searching the house, peering behind doors and checking under beds.
The mood is jovial and it is not until I am walking in the front yard and glimpse a figure at the start of the road that I wonder if I attracted too much attention with my search.
By the time I get to her and can see her shoulders shaking from tears, I know this is the case.
Ushering the children away, I give her and her mom space while I do some investigating. It turns out that Wasi is not a fan of her name.
When it feels appropriate, I return to Wasi who is at the front of the homestead, still unwilling to turn her face.
In this moment, I remember that she is seventeen. I mention this not to invalidate her experience, but to put it into context. Goodness knows, I remember when I was her age. And, perhaps more significantly, so do my mom and then boyfriend.
Wasi and I are left alone aside from Digioni, who is always jealous for touch when it is given to someone else. Rubbing both of their backs, we stand that way for awhile.
But I am restless. I cannot help but feel partially responsible for whatever it is that occurred. Anxious for her to break the silence and explain, or at least crack a smile, I resort to other tactics.
Standing on the ledge of our porch, I sing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” replacing Bonnie with Wasi. I tell her, in my broken Kinyarwanda that, to me, she is whatever name she wants. I convince her to sit beside me on the wall and refer to a game we play, “oya guseka” (no to smile), a variation of the staring contest that is lost with a smirk instead of a blink.
Digioni sits beside me with a somber face, and I realize that he is not simply looking for touch, he wants to be like his sister even in her sadness.
I am frantic. I know how to say I am going to a meeting, I am happy to see you, I want to learn to sing/to cook/to dance/to speak Kinyarwanda, but I do not have the vocabulary to listen to her talk about her feelings, to ask questions, to be present in my normal way.
And that is when it clicks: you don’t need to speak the same language to be present to someone.
Digioni’s head is in my lap now, snoring quietly.
In this moment, it does not matter that I missed most of what transpired tonight, or that my Kinyarwanda is so minimal.
As we sit together under the clear night sky, I align my breathe with hers, place my hand on her shoulder, and we speak the language without words.