Digesting Amharic


InjeraSwahili, which I tried to learn during my short time in Tanzania, is easy peasy compared to Amharic, the official working language of Ethiopia.

It’s kind of like chicken, rice, beans and spinach…versus multiple stews with complex ingredients that may or may not include meat depending on the fasting schedule, served atop a spongy, sour flatbread called injera that you eat by ripping off pieces, wrapping it around said stew and popping in your mouth in such a manner as to avoid licking your fingers lest you offend others who are sharing the dish. Then there’s the coffee ceremony.

For starters, Amharic has its own writing system called fidel, adapted from Ge’ez. There are 33 consonant symbols with seven variations, according to the vowel that is coupled with them. So already I can’t actually read the words. I have to listen to people and try to replicate what they’re saying, writing it down as it sounds to me because you see, there is no standard translation of Amharic symbols to the Roman characters we use in English.

This, for instance, means Colleen: Colleen-AmharicI’ve tried to memorize some of the symbols, a mass of lines and squiggles and circles that are somewhere between those Olympic sport pictograms and charm bracelets. I’ve tried equating the image – say a person taking a flying leap – to the sound  — ño (read: noooooo!). It is somewhat effective. But tedious. So I stopped.   

There’s also the challenge of making the glottalized or explosive version of some of the consonants. That means they’re pronounced with a sudden release of air. Amharic has explosives for the p, t and k sounds. We have them in English too – for sounds like p and t – made with air produced by the lungs. However, in Amharic, the k sound is made in the back of the throat. You can see your Adam’s apple bobbing when you do it correctly (as displayed by our teacher, Milky, below). Sort of feels like you’re gasping for air. 


One of my favourite explosive sounds is the word for cold: kaz-kaza. It somehow sounds colder than our cold. Another is beka, which means enough! And teff which is said more like t’eff. Damn, it’s satisfying to nail that sound. Disappointing when one does not.

Now when it comes to people’s names, well. They’re almost paralyzingly complicated to remember; I often have to ask 3, 4, 5 times for people to repeat their name. And again the next time I see them. Names I’ve never heard before: Kahssaye, Tesfaye, Firehiwot, Amogne, Zeritu. I only seem to retain the name when I ask what it means: compensation, hope, fruit for life, wise man, seed (also: big expectations set by parents).

The thing to do when you’re learning a language you have no hope of mastering in a short time is to memorize some key words and expressions that make people smile. Words like aHEEya for donkey and WOOsha for dog. Heck they make me smile. And when the coffee is dark brown and tastes good, a zinger like: Ya doro eyne yamasalla bunna – it looks like a chicken’s eye. Because really who doesn’t appreciate the colour of a chicken’s eye?  Coffee

There are also the words I have to say almost every day on my commute across Addis Ababa: waraj alleh – there is a stop! It’s said WUH-raj AHHHL-uh, not simply ALLUH, which is such a foreigner pronunciation. The other day it was deathly quiet on the minibus and I was sitting at the back, and you have to yell this out, otherwise the bus keeps hauling along. So I had to screw up my courage and holler: waraj alleh! And the man next to me smiled and congratulated me on my fine pronunciation. My chest puffed with pride.

It’s like when you finally learn how to rip off just enough injera to wrap the stew without touching your fingers to your mouth, using only your right hand, staying within your section, and dabbling in this stew and that stew so you get the perfect blend of spices.

Ishi. It’s all good.

Say it in Swahili


In Tanzania, greetings are important. If you’re seeing someone for the first time, you don’t just jump straight to “How much is that?” or “Could I have a Fanta (before I perish)?” or “Where in God’s name is that little photocopy shop that everybody says is on this street corner?” No, no.

You must engage in a ritual. How are you this afternoon? Good. Nzuri. How are you? Good, thank you so much. Assante sana. Thank YOU very much. Peace to you. Salama. And peace to you too. Salama. Peace, peace. Thank you so much. Assante sana. Alrighty then.

I quickly realized I needed to memorize a few key phrases in Kiswahili to show Tanzanians I care enough to learn their official language, of which they’re exceedingly proud. Any attempt to speak it is rewarded with high-voltage smiles and peels of laughter.

IMG_0012‘Kiswahili’ comes from the Arabic word for boundaries or coast, and with the prefix “ki”, it means coastal language. It’s a mixture of words from Arabic and East African Bantu but also contains Persian, English, Portuguese, German and French words, absorbed through contact over five hundred years.

Learning Kiswahili is advantageous as I’m living in western Tanzania on Lake Tanganyika, reporting on a maternal and child health program for Cuso/VSO, working with local
health authorities and mingling with local residents, travelling via bajaj and shopping in the market.

But as much as I strive, I keep messing up those key phrases; the words are non-sensical because they don’t resemble other languages I’ve learned (French, German, Spanish). Whenever possible, I try to equate Kiswahili words to English: for instance Sielewi (I don’t understand) sounds kind of like “seeaylaywee or see ya later” which is what I feel like doing when we reach a linguistic impasse. But my little memory triggers don’t always work. Where I was once a sponge for languages, I seem to have become more of a brick, or at least a very soggy sponge.


However, once one thoroughly applies onself (ahem) to learning Kiswahili grammar and gets oneself a kind teacher named Elizabeth, it is pretty straight forward. You don’t have to conjugate verbs, and you always use the same word to connote tense. Na is present, li is past and ta is future. To say “I am coming”, you take the pronoun I (Ni), add the word for present tense na, then the infinitive (kuja), so it’s: Ninakuja. One word, domino style. To say “I came”, just change the tense: Nilikuja. Easy peasy.

One of the things I really like is how some Kiswahili words end with an “i” sound, like hoteli, polisi, wiki, hospitali. Tanzanians are friendly people and this just makes them sound even friendlier, upbeat. Sure I’ll go talk to the polisi. And because there is only one word for like and love (penda), after the greetings are exchanged, a young man will occasionally tack on an “I love you!” which, you know, is nice.

The next frontier is time. It means not only being quick with the numbers, but also grasping their special clock. Indeed, there is such a thing as Swahili time. The clock goes from 6 am (sunrise) to 6 pm (sunset). So our 7 am is their 1:00, 8 am is 2:00, noon is 6:00. So um, yeah.

To avoid confusion with the other clock, you say morning or afternoon or evening. Still, one time I was told our team was departing at 10 pm, which struck me as awfully late especially with the state of the roads and the rains. It turned out to be 4 pm. So I really would have missed the caravan that time.

It’s been a good ride so far and I’m going to keep catching those bajaji and chatting up my neighbours so I can get even a little beyond the greetings – before the trip is over.

Social media: Are we as informed as we think we are?


A conversation group in a Toronto restaurant pursues connections that are threatened by social media.

Many of us — at least our parents — used to fraternize with the folks living beside them, exposing themselves to a diversity of opinion. But today more of us live in silos built by the electronic devices that were designed to bring us together.

As Canadian psychologist Susan Pinker points out in The Village Effect, the rate of Americans living alone is rising: whereas one per cent of them lived ​solo​ in 1920, more than 10 per cent did in 2010.​ ​​​Canada’s 2012 census shows a similar trend​: more than 27 ​per cent of homes ​had one occupant ​versus​ 13 per cent in 1971.

But, in the upstairs of a Toronto restaurant, a few dozen strangers mingle and drink, laughing and leaning into conversations. They’re talking about everything from terrorism and education to robotics and marriage.

The room practically vibrates with their energy.

Heather Tay, one of the participants, says simply repeating the opinions of others without first giving them some serious thought is something that technology and design consultant wants to avoid.

“Most conversations are recycled,” says the 45-year-old. “I’ve always been interested in good conversations. I remember when I was young, for phone calls, I scripted out what I had to say because I always wanted to have something interesting to talk about.”

Tay has seen how her opinion can affect others. Because she’s a black woman, she says she’s used to being a minority.

She says in a conversation around the Charlie Hebdo attack, someone questioned why Catholics can be made fun of, but not Muslims. Tay said that it’s easy to make fun of the majority, but when you’re making fun of the minority, there are different implications. That elicited an “Oh, I never thought about that.”

Sebastien Rahman,  36, a real estate agent, likes to broach testy topics like terrorism, religion, and even personal fears, like his math phobia.

“I like that we can talk about something a little uncomfortable,” he says. “It’s a real conversation.”

But Rahman says it’s not always fulfilling. “Some opinions sound really informed, but some not so much — you can tell when someone only listens to the news.”

Tay’s and Rahman’s group is organized by The Powerful Group, the brainchild of author and motivational entrepreneur Stuart Knight. He started it in October last year, frustrated by what he sees as a lack of informed opinions.

Stuart Knight

Stuart Knight, head of The Powerful Group (Stuart Knight Productions)

“People go through a week and they don’t think,” he says. “We’re living in this bubble where we aren’t challenged.”

Knight sees this alienation as a business opportunity. The 250 Toronto members of the group pay an annual membership fee of $200.

He says many of us go to the same job, frequent the same stores and circulate among the same people, tethered to the internet and social media.

“More than ever, technology has given us the opportunity to share our opinions, but they’re not necessarily well-informed,” says Knight.

So, for instance, a prominent reporter tweets about NBC’s Brian Williams and you retweet, agreeing the news anchor just has a faulty memory. That tweet could then influence many of your followers. But do you really know the whole story, and how much have you really thought about the opinion you’re sharing?

After joining The Powerful Group,  you’re emailed a list of questions the day before the meeting. Then, at the gathering, you discuss your answers with random people, moving along to someone new every 15 minutes.

Questions include: Are we winning the war on terror? How would discovering life on other planets affect the way humans see themselves? Which subject would you make mandatory for students? How has your ego got in the way of your ultimate happiness?

The group that began with 50 people now has 250 members, relocating to a more central venue, meeting a few times a month. It’s culturally diverse, there are men and women, and they range in age from 30 to  60.

A sad commentary

It is perhaps a sad commentary on urban society that such a group exists. There are no doubt many people with wide and varied social networks, but a whole lot of us feel disconnected from our neighbours.

Bombarded with information from multiple sources on multiple devices, can we be forgiven for having soundbite-sized opinions?

“A lot of it comes down to the fact that thinking deeply about a subject, particularly at the conceptual level, means stepping back from the flow of information that comes to us,” says Nicholas Carr, author of the new book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us and the Pulitzer finalist The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Carr says information comes into the brain through a narrow aperture called working memory, which can fit only two to four pieces of new information at a time.

“One of the keys to thinking deeply is moving from working memory to long-term memory,” he says. “It’s that process – consolidation of memory – when associations happen. It’s the connections that really matter when it comes to formulating your own understanding.”

The problem is that we’re so busy gathering information from different media and stuffing it into our working memory, we’re short-circuiting that process.

Another problem is that learning is kind of addictive: research shows that seeking out and finding new information releases dopamine, which encourages you to repeat the activity.

Carr says that we’re giving precedence to the gathering over the processing of information: “I fear that as a society we’re saying that’s not important anymore.”

Stuart Knight says that thinking about bigger questions and sharing opinions is important.

He dreams of expanding The Powerful Group to other cities so that people will ultimately be able to join these conversations from any major urban centre.

“If 1,000 people met once a month and had six conversations – that’s 6,000 conversations. What would that do for a city?”

The Power of PANKS


Professional aunts, no kids (PANKs) have economic power. They’re the millions of women who are close with kids of relatives or friends, but are childless themselves. PANKs are reported to spend as much as $9 billion per year on the kids in the United States and Canada, paying for everything from clothing to education and trips. But some of them say they aren’t always appreciated for their worth.

Have a listen:


Sojourning in Style

I recently went to New York to look into the Airbnb situation. Thousands of people use the website to rent out apartments or houses for short stays, and it’s especially popular in New York. But there’s a bit of a battle going on there pitting renters against tenants and landlords…and I waded into it. I started out in trendy Williamsburg (pictured here). Have a listen to the radio story I did for CBC Radio’s The World This Weekend:

As you say it


Sometimes I watch TV programs in a language I don’t understand, just to hear the sound of it. Could be about a story about pandas, a political debate, a ballroom dancing contest. It’s weird, I know. But there’s something about the undulating sh-jo of Chinese, the staccato of Italian, the briskness of Hindi and the lyricism of those Spanish soap operas.

Music notes

It struck me again the other night when I was at a concert featuring baritone Luca Pisaroni. He was singing in Italian. I couldn’t understand a single word, but it didn’t bother me. It was operatic and isn’t it normal to not understand? It sounded splendid. Then intermission came and my friend and I realized the lyrics were in the booklet that had been foisted into our hands which we’d promptly shoved under our seats until intermission when we felt we should actually learn something about the show we were attending. So eyes scrunched up in the very dim light, I skimmed the lyrics in English to get the gist, then tried to follow in Italian. Lines like this:

Her troubles I fear
More than my own troubles
Because I live more in her
Than I live in myself

Lovely stuff. But it was exhausting to follow every word – and to what end? When it came down to it, I didn’t need to know the subject; you could tell what he was singing about by his smile or his furrow, his gestures. Natch. He is Italian, after all.

Music is language. And language is music. So maybe the next time you feel like listening to something fiery, forget iTunes and tune into an Italian talk show.