“Can you sing it with me?” asked Bheki, who stood in front of my desk with his hands poised in mid-air. He had just been teaching me the lyrics to a Swazi song. On his way through my office, he had seen a letter I was about to send to the U.S. poking out of my bag, the stamps freshly applied. This had prompted him to stop walking and break into a soft Siswati chanting melody.
I looked at him; he had sung me the string of Siswati words two times already and I was still struggling to break it apart. There was something in there about writing home, but I had not understood everything he had said. “Can you repeat the first part again?” I asked him. My hands rested on the keyboard of my laptop, and the cursor on the screen stood blinking in mid-sentence. I looked up at Bheki with my head tilted slightly to the side to maximize my ear’s exposure to his low voice. The expression on his face is often one of an anticipated smile – one that is not yet completely formed, but stands ready at a moment’s notice to appear.
Today was no exception. Bheki began to sing softly again, but the fact that he was singing did not in any way mitigate the mumbling quality of his voice. This makes him hard to understand in English, and nearly impossible for me to understand in Siswati. Bheki, for his part, finds it incredibly difficult to see why I have any trouble at all understanding the long and low rumblings of Siswati that erupt from his mouth in rapid fire, rumblings which cleverly dodge my comprehension.
“Yemakoti ubobhalela ekhaya, yemakoti ubobhalela ekhaya” he sang, his hand fluttering up and down along with his voice. He smiled expectantly at me again. “Uyabona?” he asked. “You see?” “Ehhm,” I stalled, my mind trying desperately to match the words he had sung with anything I had heard before. I thought to myself, ‘bhala’ means ‘to write,’ and ‘khaya’ means ‘home.’ So far, not awful. So I could identify fifty percent of the random words he had thrown at me. Unfortunately, this sample is not representative of my overall comprehension abilities in Siswati.
I told Bheki the words I had managed to identify. “But what does yemakoti ubo mean?” I asked him. Whenever I ask Bheki to define the random phrases and words he likes to fling at me as he walks past my desk or sees me from across the office, he tends to fall back on a single teaching strategy to mitigate my confusion. He repeats himself over and over again in Siswati, evidently thinking that if I just hear the string of foreign sounds enough times, I will miraculously understand their meaning in English. “Yemakoti ubobhalela ekhaya, yemakoti ubobhalela ekhaya,” he sang again now, gesturing his hand with more emphasis on each syllable, as if this extra bit of energy he was expending would somehow force the meaning into my head.
“Bheki, ich verstehe gar nichts davon,” I replied. Bheki, I don’t understand any of that. Becoming less amused each time he has taken this approach with me over the last months, I have, in response, taken to responding to him in German, hoping he’ll get the point. Undeterred, his voice became slightly louder as he sang again, “Ye-ma-ko-ti u-bo-bha-le-la e-kha-ya!
A soft chuckle came from the corner, and I looked over to see Sifiso, one of our colleagues, looking rather amused at our exchange. I threw him a pleading look and asked him, “Sifiso, what does yemakoti mean?” “It means bride, sisi,” he said as he turned back to his work, grinning as his eyes flickered over to us and then back to his computer screen. I turned to Bheki, whose grin was now even wider. “So the song is about brides who are writing home to their families?” I asked him. He nodded. “Because they have to go and live with their husband’s family once they are married,” I stated, looking at him again for confirmation.
“Yemakoti ubobhalela ekhaya,” he sang again in response, his eyes crinkling at me as he chanted through a grin. I took it as confirmation. “But why is it yemakoti and not just emakoti?” I inquired further. “What is the ye?” Bheki’s smile froze for a moment on his face as he looked at the ceiling, thinking. After a moment, he looked at me and said, “Ok, if you say yemakoti, you’re saying yemakoti, but if you say emakoti, you’re saying emakoti.”
I stared back at him, unsure of how best to react to this grammatical explanation, which had fallen far short of my expectations. But I could see that grammar was a difficult thing for him to explain, so I just said, “Oh, ok – I see,” and smiled politely at him. “It’s like the singer is telling the brides to write home with the ye,” he said. “Like this: Hey, you brides, write home.” A moment passed as I digested this, and then I said to him, “So, applying that same principle – since I’m not a bride – could you say to me, yumlungu ubobhalela ekhaya?”
Bheki calls me umlungu wami, which means (and there is no good way to translate this into English) my white person. I was asking him if he could say Hey you, white person – write home. As I said it, I glanced back over to the letter that was still peeking out of my bag at our conversation. The letter that started it all. He looked at me, shaking his head as laughter took him over. “Hey, umlungu wami, don’t say that to anyone else,” he said, still shaking with laughter. I grinned back at him, his amusement contagious, and he walked away, his singsong “Yemakoti ubobhalela ekhaya….” floating back to me from his retreating form.