Learning a new language and culture is like discovering a new world, opening your eyes and mind to completely amazing and strange ideas, some shocking, some fascinating, most unexpected.
Since the beginning of the new year, we have a new teacher, Eunice, who is hoping to make us into fluent Lugbara speakers within a few months… Lugbara is the local tribe in Arua, one of the 10 largest tribes in Uganda (out of a total of 34 ethnicities). The Lugbara are a tribe descended from Nigeria to settle here. Their territory extends around Arua and into the Democratic Republic of Congo, so families have been split by the arbitrary political boundaries drawn by the Europeans in Berlin in 1884.
Disconcertingly, we seem to be a source of great amusement for most of the ex-pats when we tell them we are taking this time to study Lugbara. “Good luck”, they tell us. They then go on to tell you a story of someone who has been attempting the language for many years and haven’t gotten very far. Some compare the language to Chinese, saying it is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. It is quite depressing hearing this, obviously… Additionally, having grown up in Congo and learning Swahili there, having lived in Malawi and Kenya and trying to learn the languages there, while being exposed to various other African languages, it is frustrating to have to start at zero like a baby once again….those languages are nothing like Lugbara!
Most whites don’t even bother to learn Lugbara especially since this tribe is only one of 5 in the close vicinity of one another. For example, the Alur are settled on the outskirts of Arua town. Their language is close to the Luo language which we were learning in Kenya. To make it even worse, there are sub-sections of the Lugbara tribe with variations in the way words are said. Whoopee to learning a difficult language which is only spoken by a few and which is nothing like any other language we have ever heard!
Eunice, in action, confusing us
Eunice is a good teacher, though, having patience with us as we sit on the veranda trying to repeat what on earth she has just said. As a Lugbara, she is also good at turning up late, demonstrating how a Lugbara should act. As Lilian, another Lugbara who works for us says, “Lugbaras is not following time, ha!” and laughs out loud. So, anyway, she is almost an hour late today, but since we live in Africa, you never know what may have happened. It could be a relative has just died and she has to go to the funeral.
Despite the issue of time-keeping, which especially bothers Emma, Eunice has been effective at moving us on in the language. Emma and I already feel more confident using some simple phrases and greetings. For example, I was particularly proud when I asked for 10 eggs the other day in the local wooden duka close to our home. “Ife mani augbe mundri”. The word for egg 'augbe' is spoken as though you are swallowing an egg...
One of the problems of learning Lugbara is that the same words can mean completely different things. So, for instance, the word for sauce, “tibi”, is the same word for ‘beard’, just with a different tone. Emma wonders if this has anything to do with someone’s long beard dragging in their gravy once upon a time. There are other examples, though the best so far is the word ‘ago’, which if intonated differently, can either mean ‘husband’ or ‘pumpkin’. A phrase like ‘my beautiful fiancée’ can also come across as ‘my beautiful warthog’, so any wannabe suitors need to be pretty careful in this town…
Emma also uses a lot of imagination when it comes to remembering the Lugbara phrases or words. So, for instance, the word for peanuts is ‘funo’ (foon-oh). Emma thinks of little peanuts bouncing around and having a lot of fun. It can be a bit of a tentative or weird link at times. She is constantly whispering to me how I can remember a word. Awupi (A-whoopee) is the word for Aunt on your dad’s side. Obviously, this conjures up thoughts of playing a trick with my Auntie Barbara with a whoopee cushion…’Fetaa’ (feta) means gift and so it is remembered by thinking of giving someone a gift of cheese. I often wish I had had Emma as a study partner for my IGCSE or IB exams in Holland as I would not have spent so many lost hours staring blankly at walls trying to cram boring information into my struggling mind.
Alongside Emma's visual mind, we are also discovering that Lugbara is quite a visual language. The word for ‘fingers’, for example, is ‘hand-children’. This also works for ‘toes’ (foot children). The word for door translates directly as ‘house-mouth’. The floor is the ‘house-stomach’. Today, we learnt that veranda is the ‘joeti’ or ‘house buttocks’!! You can’t make this stuff up, eh? It’s great!
Onomatopoeia is often used as well in the language. 'Kulukulu' (koo-loo-koo-loo) is the name for a turkey and on hearing the sound a turkey makes the other day when passing a homestead, I really thought it described it well. Barking is ‘agbo-agbo’, crying is 'owu- owu' (oh-woo) and laughing is 'ogu- ogu' (oh-goo). I can’t remember any of these sound words properly and instead guess by making any noise that I think would fit. It unfortunately doesn’t work. One of our favourite onomatopoeiatic words is the word for butterfly ‘alapapa’, just like the sound of little wings beating!
Language can also be an intimate doorway into the culture. We couldn’t believe t, when Eunice explained the word for ‘girl’ is made up of 2 words in Lugbara, ‘za’ meaning ‘meat’ and ‘mva’ meaning ‘child’! 'Meat-child!' Girls have been seen as great little earners in a family by providing a dowry of up to 20 head of cattle and 15 goats and extras like bows and arrows and hoes.
However, so many of the traditions have been changing here as the pressure of our Western culture pervades and invades. Loin cloths have been out since the 1950s or 60s (Maybe this is a good thing. I can’t see the Craig family sauntering down the road semi-nude in Arua, and it would make an embarrassing family photo). Instead, though, everyone is wearing second-hand Western clothes. Out is the tradition to remove your 6 front teeth using only a hammer and some herbs to encourage healing of your mouth afterwards (I’m also thankful this is not practised anymore), and marking the skin by cuts with a razor in adolescence is now stopped. However, as Eunice explained, the rather exaggerated buttocks size in women is still favoured by the culture, especially if the buttocks also jiggles while walking.
All-in-all, though pretty tiring, it is really interesting learning the language and culture. It definitely does show how very different we Westerners are (especially compared to the recent past) and so will help us understand how to approach people more effectively. We are hoping knowledge of the language can help us build relationships and get alongside people better (until we meet others from the next tribe along who don’t have a clue what we are saying…).
Eunice, Lilian and all of us outside on the 'house-buttocks' in the 'house-mouth'
Amelie in the jokoni