“Mwatandala wuli?” “Tantandali makola, kwali imwe?” “Yewo.”
At the close of our first workshop together this fall (2006), the teachers from the Full Primary Schools at Loudon, Etchiyeni, and Kamwabombo taught me, or should I say, tried to teach me, this Chitumbuka phrase for an afternoon greeting. “Good afternoon, how are you?” “Good afternoon, I’m fine, and how are you?” “Fine, thank you.”
I had told the teachers that I would like to learn a few Chitumbuka words and phrases while I was there. They accepted that request as a challenge and seemed to enjoy testing me. I expected they would teach me one or two words a day, but they didn’t let me off the hook that easily. And every time they saw me, they smilingly helped me practice. What fun we had for those three weeks.
I must admit some of their lessons for me were easier than the first one. “Pawemi” means “Good-bye.” I got that one quickly! “Musambizi” means “teacher.” During the workshop when we talked about snow and cut paper snowflakes, they decided that “maji ghakukhoma” (frozen water) was as close as they could get to the word snow in Chitumbuka.
I practiced saying “mukachererenga” every day in a feeble and unsuccessful attempt to reconcile our vastly different concepts of timeliness. “Come early” meant before the 2:00 starting time to me, but something closer to “prior to 3:00” to most of them. I was amused that they taught that word to me. Do you suppose they got tired of hearing me try to pronounce it?
Another workshop-related phrase, “tizamuwonana namachero” meant “we shall meet tomorrow” and that we did, day after day. All of this teaching and learning was fun for me and for the teachers, but it also had a deeper value for me.
In every Marion Medical Mission training session for the past five years, I have heard how important greetings, especially formulaic greetings, are to the Malawians. It’s a part of their culture that is difficult for us to truly comprehend. Finally, this year I experienced and learned to appreciate the significance of those greetings. It seemed to happen when I took the time and effort to learn a few phrases in their language. Then as I began using these greetings both in Chitumbuka and English, I discovered that they have value and meaning deeper than our casual “hi” or “hello.” I can’t explain it, but I did experience it. When they realized that I was attaching importance to that part of their culture, they responded first with smiles and then with even more openness. They were interested in me and seemed to be delighted that I was interested in them.
“Mulutemakola.” “Go in peace.” What a gift to be given that phrase and that good wish as I headed home.
“Tawonga chomeni, musambizi.” “Thank you very much, teachers.” I will never forget you.