Talking at cross purposes

Out in Zambia for the end of war commemorations, local words were used with the assumption that all knew the meaning. Using powers of deduction and context one could generally do so but it was not always possible. The most notable being the word for the whip made of hippo hide. So I thought I’d share some – always helpful to historians and researchers of WW1 Africa…

Let’s start with the hippo hide whip:

  • Kiboko – Swahili
  • Khourbash or Shaaburg – Arabic / Soudanese
  • Shikote – Bemba
  • Sjambok, pronounced shambock – South African English/Afrikaans
  • Imvubu – Zulu
  • Mnigolo – Mandinka
  • Chicote – Portuguese Africa and Congo
  • Fimbo – Belgian Congo

Probably the most well known word, Safari which is journey in Swahili translates to Ulendo in Malawian Chichewa. The Peace Corps have helpfully provided a list of 12 commonly used words in Malawi – I recognised a few with my smattering of Swahili and other languages. I leave you to discover what you recognise.

And then that most wonderful of African trees, the Baobab, which I discovered in Sandes’ book on the Royal Engineers in Egypt and the Sudan is called the Tebaldi. Sandes explains on p336 (96MB) how the tree was used to obtain water in desert terrain. Apparently there are 9 varieties of Baobab – you live and learn. In Swahili, it is the Mbuyu and in Yoruba, the Oshe. It’s ‘monkey bread’ fruit is also proving something of a fad. Apart from being a water storage facility, in the early phase of the East African campaign of 1914/5, a baobab in Tsavo was used to house a sniper, apparently a woman, who took potshots at those trying to sneak up on Salaita Hill. And then just as you think you’ve grasped where Mbuyuni is, thinking it’s in Tsavo, you discover there are numerous places called Mbuyuni throughout East Africa – it simply translates as ‘Place of the Baobab’.

Which leads to the different names settlements had during World War 1 – local, English and German. A list of some of these can be found on the Great War in Africa, In Memory list for East Africa.

So to prevent any miscommunication and talking at cross purposes, it’s worth discovering the multiple words used for the same thing if you’re working with different cultural groups or micro-nations. My mind is reelling at the thought of having to juggle 177 different words for one item – 177 is the number of micro-nations I estimate participated in the East Africa campaign of WW1- but thankfully a number spoke the same language and regional langauges such as Swahili and Fanagalo were developed.



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