I’ve always loved the song, “Stage Fright” by The Band.
It’s a song written by band member Robbie Robertson about his struggles with stage fright as a musician. (The band even hired a hypnotist to work with Robertson on his nervousness.)
But I never fully understood stage fright until I learned Swahili.
Most of you know I’ve made a living from speaking to groups. I’ve faced audiences of all sizes, shapes, and attitudes. From prisons, churches, Lion’s Club’s members sighing and looking at their watches, to skeptical school classes. The tougher the audience, the more adrenaline flowed to reach them with the right story, inflection, and eye contact.
But I’ve met my match with this new language.
When I open my mouth to speak, my brain turns to Uji. (That’s the oatmeal-like gruel Africans enjoy for breakfast.)
I simply cannot fit the words right and often have a brain freeze.
It’s been very humbling.
Yesterday at the local Pasaka (Easter) service, I had my best (0r worst) stage fright.
It’s tradition in Kenyan churches to allow each visitor to introduce themselves. Our teacher, DaDa Stella, was in attendance so we wanted to speak our Swahili correctly. We’d been to her church several times, so I decided we didn’t need to re-introduce ourselves.
When the pastor called on us, I smiled, held up three fingers and said, “We’ve been here mbili times.”
The congregation rolled with laughter. I’m getting used to it. A Southern accent speaking Swahili brings out good humor in all Africans.
Then I realized why they were laughing.
I’d held up three fingers.
I’d said “Mbili” which is the number 2.
As soon as the service ended, our mwalimu (teacher) DaDa Stella approached me, “Bwana Nne* (that’s my school name) I really liked the mbili/three fingers.”
I told her, “You may need to change my named from Bwana Nne to Bwana Mbili.” I held up three fingers for effect.
I’ve had fun telling this story. The best tales are always the ones that poke fun at ourselves. (I learned this a public speaker. Self-effacing humor puts the audience at ease and gets them on your side.)
I’ve had ample opportunity for plenty of self-humor on my Swahili Stage Fright journey.
Bwana Nne* aka Bwana Mbili aka Baba Clay aka Bwana Curt.
*DaDa (Sister) Stella nicknamed me “Bwana (Brother) Nne because of my difficulty in getting the “n” sound right on Nne (number 4). When we have trouble with a word or term, DaDa Stella will encourage DeDe, “Come on, Momma, it’s right there on the tip of your tongue.”
If I’ve lost it completely, she’ll smile and click her tongue, “Oh no, Bwana Nne. It’s gone to Mombasa.”
This is the Kenyan way of saying, “I’ve lost it and can’t find it.” Mombasa is the large coastal city a long distance from Nairobi.
Gone to Mombasa. Swahili Stage Fright. I understand both terms.
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