Bheki walked by my desk and slowed down, noticing the Siswati language book that lay open next to my laptop. I was doing my homework for the lesson I had with my Siswati tutor later that night. My assignment was to find words in the first class of nouns we had gone over the week before and put them into sentences, making the verbs agree with the nouns. The noun class I had learned about was the human class, which have a certain prefix attached and follow a certain rule when forming the plural. So far I had umfati (woman), umfana (boy), and umlungu (white person). I tapped my pen on the notebook, trying to rack my brain for other words that would fit the pattern.
Bheki looked over my shoulder at the list of nouns I had written down and muttered something to me in Siswati, grinning expectantly and obviously waiting for some sort of reply. I stared back at him, finally offering him an apologetic smile in lieu of an answer. “Utsini?” I ventured (“What are you saying?”). “mumble mumble mumble?” he repeated (although I can’t actually verify that he repeated what he said before, as I didn’t understand him either time). He looked at me with an amused expression on his face while I tried to pick out anything recognizable from the jumble of sounds that had just come out of his mouth. He repeated the word in Siswati several more times before finally saying, “I said, umtsakatsi – write that one down. It fits in your noun class.” Obediently, I wrote it down in my notebook, and following the rule, wrote batsakatsi next to it. “What does it mean?” I asked. “Haha….” he said with a devilish grin, and walked away chuckling.
Bheki (who is in charge of accounts at Save the Children) has been the pushiest person I know here in trying to get me to learn Siswati. He often comes up to me, throwing elaborate strings of Siswati at me and expecting me to understand. He always looks highly disappointed in me when I continuously do not. After I had been in Swaziland for 3 months, he sat me down and told me in a serious voice that I should really should have been fluent by that point. The problem is that Bheki’s voice is naturally difficult to understand – even in English – and what he is saying usually sounds like a car engine being turned over and over in a fruitless effort to start. Often, what sounds like a simple grunt to me will turn out to be an entire sentence in Siswati, the prefixes and extra syllables dropping like flies when processed through the filter of Bheki’s mouth. He has taken great amusement in my efforts to try out my increasing Siswati vocabulary and grammatical abilities on him. Last week, when I was teaching myself about negation and the various pluralization rules for the different noun classes, I approached him in the office and said, “Tipunu ati fanani!” at which he started laughing so hard that he had to take in big gulps of air to keep from coughing. I thought I had told him that “the spoons are not the same,” but apparently, ‘tipunu’ ceases to mean ‘spoon’ if you accidentally pronounce the ‘p’ as a ‘b.’ What I had told him unwittingly, and with an accomplished air of triumph, was that “the butts are not the same.”
I went back to work, forgetting for the moment about my open notebook perched at the corner of my desk. Hlobi walked by just then and glanced down, and then did a double take. “AYE, Siphiwe, who taught you this word?” she said. “It was Bheki, wasn’t it?” as she began to laugh. I nodded, a smile forming on my face, and I asked her what it meant. She was bent over my desk from laughing so hard, and she managed to croak out, “It means ‘witch,’ sisi, but it’s not a nice word. Aye, wena – umtsakatsi!” Mandla walked by us just then and turned around with a shocked look on his face upon hearing the word, and then raised his arms wildly in the air and shook his head, disappearing quickly into his office. This only caused Hlobi to dissolve into even more powerful peals of laughter, which then prompted a puzzled-looking Nontobeko to come out of the office she shared with Mandla to ask what was happening.
I decided that it was a perfect time to try out my new Siswati skills. Just as Hlobi was catching her breath, I declared, “Umtsakatsi, wena!” (“You’re a witch, you!”), and Hlobi bent over again, heaving with laughter. This time Nontobeko joined her, both of them grasping the side of my cubicle wall for support. Hlobi gasped and said, “Eesh, now Mandla is going to think I am teaching you these words! Go into his office and say, “Umtsakatsi, ngi tjelwe ngu Bheki!” (“Bheki taught me this word!”). Obediently, I went into his office with Nontobeko right behind me and repeated the phrase Hlobi had taught me. “Uya ganga Bheki,” replied Mandla, shaking his finger at me. I looked at Nontobeko questioningly, and with a smile, she said, “Yebo, uya ganga Bheki, sisi.”
“It means, Bheki is misbehaving – he’s doing a very bad thing, teaching you words like that!” said Mandla.
“But is ‘witch’ really that bad of a word?” I asked.
“Go to the Director and tell him that you think he’s an umtsakatsi, sisi. Tell him that someone saw him sprinkling some black powder somewhere and that now everyone knows he’s an umtsakatsi,” said Nontobeko, beginning to shake with laughter again.
Uya ganga nyalo!” I said with mock accusation, pointing my finger at her as Mandla began to laugh as well. (“Now YOU’RE being bad.”)
A few minutes later, I walked past the HR office and heard Nontobeko speaking with Faith, our HR manager. I poked my head in to ask Faith a question, and Nontobeko looked at me and immediately cast her eyes downward, biting her lip to keep from laughing. I started laughing then, and as soon as I started, Nontobeko wasn’t able hold hers back either. “Siphiwe, umtsakatsi,” said Nontobeko between giggles (“Siphiwe is a witch”) and Faith and Lindiwe started to laugh as well.
“Who is teaching you these words, Siphiwe?” asked Faith.
“I think you can guess that one,” I replied, with a suggestive eyebrow raised in the direction of Bheki’s office.
“Aye, Bheki,” said Faith, shaking her head in mock disapproval. “And this one here is a sidlani,” said Faith, pointing at Lindiwe. “She has stolen my scissors and won’t give them back!”
“Do you know sidlani, sisi?” asked Lindiwe with a grin.
“No, but is the plural tidlani?” I asked eagerly.
“No, sidlani becomes bosidlani. It means thug,” said Lindiwe.
I wandered back to Mandla’s office, opened the door, and said, “U sidlani yini?” (“Are you a thug?”)
“Siphiwe, why are you learning all these bad words? Now all you can talk about in Siswati is thugs and witches,” reproved Mandla.
Excellent, I thought to myself. That’s all I want to talk about anyway.
Later, as I was walking to the bus rank, an acquaintance of mine, Kenneth, tapped me on the shoulder and peered under my umbrella to give me a small wave and a grin. I greeted him and we started chatting as we maneuvered our way through the crowds of people squinting against the drizzling rain, past the men who hover at the entrance to the bus rank shouting urgently, “Taxi, madame! Taxi! Madame!” and down the ramp into the small arena where women sit behind their vegetable stands. Kenneth asked how I had been doing, and I replied that things were fine, and that I was on my way to a Siswati lesson right then.
“But I think I learned a lot of Siswati today even without my lesson tonight,” I said to him, smiling.
“What did you learn today, then?” he asked.
“I learned how to say ‘Umtsakatsi, wena’!” I said, pointing my finger at him mockingly and grinning expectantly.
Kenneth’s smile faded as his friend next to him burst into laughter. “Siphiwe,” he said in a serious tone, “you can’t just go around here calling people wizards and witches. Some people would beat you for that here. It’s really, really not a nice word, and you mustn’t say it anymore.”
I bit my lip and wiped the grin off my face, trying to achieve a more serious expression. I apologized and assured him I wouldn’t call anyone else an umtsakatsi, and we parted ways as I went off to my kombi station. I was thinking about what an English equivalent of this word might be, based on the reactions of the Swazis who heard me utter this word today, and I think that it might be roughly equivalent to a foreigner coming up to you in America and saying, “Hi, you old b**ch!”
The main lesson to draw from this is never to trust anything else that that thug/wizard Bheki decides to teach me until I have piloted it on a group of trusted friends.