Mimi Notenka Kudenko- means I love you

EDIT: From my dashboard, I find that many people view this post when they Google the translation of “I love you” from English to Kiswahili (Swahili)…the loosest translation would be Ninakupenda…penda means to love or to like. Other people find this post when they try to translate “Mimi Notenka Kudenko”. I have to tell you- it does not mean I love you in Kiswahili. In fact the only Kiswahili word in that phrase is Mimi which means Me…the rest, is gibberish. I hope this helps, and if someone swore to you that they “Notenka Kudenko”…forgive them- it is not their fault, blame Jodi Piccoult!

In case you are trying to figure it out, it’s not Russian. According to Ms. Jodi Picoult (New York Times Bestselling author), Mimi Notenka Kudenko” means “I love you” in “Swahili”. Now, I don’t know about you, but the first time I read this, after I was done laughing, I thought “hmm, so is love ‘Notenka’ or ‘Kudenko’?” Now I understand why Oprah was so pissed off at James Frey (I may not agree with her public flagellation- I thought she was more ‘zen’ but hey, now we know what you get when you cross Ms. O-people have been warned). I know that authors have great license to invent stuff in their books, in fact, the winner of the Costa Book of the Year award for this year is an agoraphobic (now recovered) London-based author of a book set in 1860s Canada- a country she has never visited, but researched extensively.  So, I wondered, is it that Jodi Picoult didn’t realize that Kiswahili is spoken widely enough that in this day and age, considering how many Kiswahili speakers are living in North America, considering Kiswahili is taught at several American schools, considering that we have the internet, she could have found out quite easily, the Kiswahili translation for “I love you”. Or is it that Jodi Picoult figured “No one will ever know, or care if I make this up!” I had really come to enjoy her books for a light read before bed…but now, I really cannot read her anymore- I can’t get “Mimi Notenka Kudenko” out of my mind- however hard I try…it feels like a betrayal of sorts, and until I figure out what the reasoning was behind the phrase, no more Jodi for me. Her books are verboten in any library I ever own.

(Digression: It was exactly how I felt after reading Kuki Gallman’s book about Africa- you know, the one that was made into a movie starring Kim Basinger – there was all this ungrammatical Kiswahili that left me wondering whether she actually knows any Kenyans, because a primary school child could have pointed out the errors. Very disappointing, makes you wonder about other stuff…if you can’t be bothered to proofread the Kiswahili in your memoirs and you claim to love and live in a country surrounded by over 30 million speakers of the damn language. It is all rather disturbing especially since my Canadian friend loved the book and found it so evocative. I was like “I’ll give you evocative!”)

Another Kiswahili-bandit, and one I have always wanted to get off my chest is Meshell Ndegeocello…how does she get away with saying that Ndegeocellomeans “free like a bird” in “Swahili”? And please- if it does, and I missed it, do not hesitate to let me know.
How come nobody calls her on it? I would love to do the ET interview after she’s won a grammy:
Me: “Congratulations, Meshell! Please remind us, WTF does Ndegeocello mean?”
Meshell: “Thank you, thank you. Well, W…. It means Free like a bird in swahili!
Me: “No it doesn’t!”
Meshell (huffily): “Yes it does. It was bestowed on me when I discarded my ‘slave’ name”
Me: “Um, Sorry to disappoint but it is not even a Kiswahili word. Technically, free like a bird loosely translates to Ndege anayeyumbayumba or something like that.”
Meshell (as she storms off): “Whateva bitch! I can make it mean whatever I like- who cares anyway?”
Me: “Meshell! Meshell!  Come back! Um back to you in the studio Mary (Hart)”
I cannot listen to her music or even take her seriously as an artist. You see, if she had been named by a parent, the error can be chalked down to life’s mistakes (is it true that Oprah’s name was actually a typo and she was meant to be named Orpah?)- how many people do you know in Kenya whose names are slightly ‘off’ versions of English names. The problem for me, is that a grown-ass woman went out, she searched high and low, selected, discarded some names, and somehow, she saw “Ndegeocello” and thought “It is good. I shall be called Ndegeocello”. Is that normal? I’m not sure. I mean, what if I went and just decided that L’adonisha means (beautiful bride of Adonis in Latin)…I would be busted so fast by all and sundry. Could someone tell people: if you are going to ‘go native’…at least invest some time and research from reputable sources (I am coming to that) before making it official…a name is forever!

Almost all Kenyans have met N. Americans (I won’t specify but there is one particular group of them) who have “African/Swahili” names. I knew of someone who met a woman named “Kamau”, who got very testy when my friend mentioned that this was a common name for boys from the Kikuyu tribe. The young woman in question could not believe that her folks had lied to her, ati it means “queen or somesuch title”…(Digression: why do all these ‘majina ya kujibandika ya kibandia’ always seem to have connotations of royalty, grandeur, strength, beauty, and why are they always really funny in reality?). It is sad, really. There are always exceptions though: I have met a Johnstone Kenyatta in a taxi in Philadelphia and I was pleasantly surprised that he didn’t just jibandika, he actually knew the history, and admired Kenyatta
Which brings me to a personal favourite: a woman who says her name Wambui means “one who sings”. Now, I could be wrong, but from what I understand my name does not ‘mean’ anything, so much as it signifies one of the nine clans of the Gikuyu. All my life, no one- not my parents (who know a thing or two), not the other Wambuis I know, not a history teacher, not my 90something year old grandfather has ever mentioned that my name has a ‘meaning’…plus, I have never needed it to have a meaning for it to be special. I get irritated because such things get perpetuated, and then one day I’ll be in an argument with a woman called Notenka (remember, it may mean love) about what my name means!

For your entertainment, I must mention, the ultra-deluxe max hilarity: these websites where you can choose an ‘African’ name for your new baby from the comfort of your Bacalounger. For example, the baby name network contains some ‘wonderful’ suggestions for your little bundle of joy, like “Panya” (which means mouse). Now, picture this:
The year: 2012
The place: Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi.
Immigration officer: “Madam, welcome to Kenya, your passport please.”
After two seconds…
Immigration officer: “Panya?”
Panya: “Yes, it means mouse in Swahili”
Immigration officer 1: “Eh…yes.” [biting cheeks to avoid laughing]
Immigration officer 1: [across the counter to his colleagues] “Bwana Otieno, ebu kuja uone huyu mama- ati anaitwa panya!”
Immigration officer Otieno: “Ati panya? Kweli? Na anatoka wapi? hapana, unacheza Ebu nione.”
Panya: [to her hosts once she is out of the airport] The passport guys were so friendly…they all left their posts to look at my passport, they couldn’t stop saying my name and smiling. I felt like I had…come home!

Now, the problem with a name like “Panya” is obvious to the average Kiswahili speaker: A rat is a rat is a rat. There are no ‘mice’. Maybe you can call a mouse (i.e. a small rat) a kijipanya or something, but to us, panya, will never, ever, evoke cutesy images of Mickey Mouse, just images of garden variety brown rats aka rattus norvegicus. You might say that no one in their right minds would actually pick a name off a website in a foreign language, but this is a region where people routinely tattoo Chinese characters in highly visible areas, relying on their tattoo artist to translate- and I’m not sure, but I’d say that the number of Mandarin-speaking tattoo artists cannot be established purely from the number of Mandarin tattoos out there. But I bet it doesn’t stop North Americans from going to China and sharing their tattoos with bemused locals who can’t understand why you would want to permanently write gibberish (or if you are really unlucky, profanities) on your biceps

I say, it is okay to want to be unique, lakini, if you cannot be bothered to do it right, do not do it at all. My friends and I are always joking about the goldmine to be made out of exploiting unsuspecting Kiswahili-bandits and other Abusers of African language, culture etc. You could mint millions, and leave a string of Panyas, Wajingas and others across this land. I have attended musical events where we sung simple Kiswahili hymns (complete with harmonies) which our high school choir master would have considered warm up exercises and received such thunderous, rapturous applause that left us wondering…you would have thought Muungano Choir had just performed. A so-so kayamba player crossing the floor, raising and lowering the instrument semi-rhythmically as the choir sang: It was the equivalent of a Michelle Kwan executed triple salchow, half Axel double lutz combo (and I have just bandikad that- I don’t even know if such a move is feasible). A friend drumming on a cumbersome leather/wood creation whose surface had not been sufficiently dried because of the anemic winter sun: It was as if the entire cast of Drumline had taken over- the applause was frenzied, almost delirious.

Ah well, at least the Kiswahili bandits give us something to laugh about…I mean, picture this: a bride-to-be in Any-town, N. America will read Jodi Picoult’s “harvesting the heart” -page 24 to be precise, and she will declare, tearfully, with the sincerity (that this once-in-a-lifetime solemn moment deserves) before all their family and friends: “MIMI NOTENKA KUDENKO”…and the congregated wellwishers will say “It is good”.

As someone said: Ignorance is bliss


Filed under Dunia ina Mambo

29 responses to “Mimi Notenka Kudenko- means I love you

  1. OK you have just made my day! I have just finished reading that book and yes, I loved Jodi, but somehow this has gone a tad down because of that ‘Notenka’ shit!
    I really would think a writer of her caliber would do more research – google anyone? – on the right words.
    And yes if you claimed your name was ‘merci’ and it means ‘have mercy on me’ you would be laughed out of France and all other french speaking territories! Yet these ‘kubandika’ bandits out there are quite blase about such things.

    As for panya, well there was also ‘simba’ – apprently it meant King. And the girl couldn’t understand why her TZian friend could barely keep a straight face when she would do a round of introductions. . .

    And yes, this whole – ‘what does your name mean’ shit is not cool. Not every thing has to have a meaning. It is just the name of my grandmother dammit! So leave me be. I don’t ask you what Anne means do I? Not everything ‘native’ has to have some existentialist, philosphical leaning. We just did stuff, we just named, just because you couldn’t walk around for more than a week without a name.

    Sadly many of the native gals and boys at home are going the root of, ‘meet my daughter, her name is xxyz and it means abc’….hello, it’s not the epitome of cool. Just follow traditional naming sequences unless really you can’t stand the name….because there are some butt ugly sounding names. Among Kikuyu’s the ny*** names are a hit or miss. . .

    I’ll not apologize for blogging on your blog because i needed to clear my mind from a report that’s starting to wear on my nerves. . .adios

  2. Blog away…at least you blogged today, even though it wasn’t at your own place lol.
    I can confess that when a friend introduced me to Jodi, I read her books voraciously…one night I stayed up and read three books back-to-back, till I was feeling cross eyed and my eyes had lost focus. Now, even if it was strapped to my face…

  3. egm

    More like folks not being able to pronounce Orpah, thus Oprah

    That whole issue of folks giving crazy names that mean something is very prevalent. On the flip side, think of some back home who give crazy names to their children. But as you say, if it is the parents who do it, all I can say is, pole to the child. But if it is a person who takes it upon themselves to do so, I will laugh at them from here to kingdom come bila shame!

    But this lack of research is not a preserve of just the everyday man or woman. In one scene Return of the Jedi, the ewoks say something in Kikuyu to the effect of you people over there, but the sub-titles say something completely different. That right there just made time stand still for me. How do you release this to the world without making adequate research as to what is being spoken is actually what your sub-titles convey? Even though the movie was made back in 81 when Google was but a twinkle in Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s eyes, that still doesn’t excuse them from not doing the necessary research. And not just Star Wars. There are other movies made in more recent times that have given sub-titles completely different from what was being spoken, or calling a language Kiswahili whereas that’s completely not the case. Arrgghh-inducing moment indeed!

  4. Someone shoot me in the foot for all the times that I have been asked what X or Y means in Swahili. In this era of Wiki, Professor So-And-So, and your friendly web browser, give me a break.

    Mine is to add the name that a lady gave to her sweet adorable child Malaya( pronounced as it sounds) to the shock of her Kenyan neighbour. That was NOT cute, and the parent was least bothered. The good folks at Immigration would have a field day with this one.

    I have no doubt that these writers have the nostalgia of various sheltered trips to the hinterland, but we need to call them out on this farce they play before us.

    Good job on the blogging.

  5. @ egm…In the Kim Basinger movie “I dreamed of Africa”, there’s a woman who plays the maid (I think), and she says “Mimi ni Wanjiku”, however, her accent, doesn’t even sound Kenyan. As in, this Wanjku pronounces her name the way it’s written (the ‘u’ as a ‘u’ instead of an ‘o’)-ack! The movie, the book- should be banned! I think it’s laziness and a “who cares anyway” attitude towards other cultures that allows people to get away with such transgressions with impunity. If an actress can gain 30 lbs to play a fat person (though it makes you wonder- does that mean that you cannot be a great, fat actress), why can’t they research the languages right? The movie “Nowhere in Africa” impressed me because the little German girl said her Kiswahili lines perfectly…I liked that.
    That being said, Africans also don’t help, because, we will bastardize our culture (a sampling of presentations from “African Nights” at most unis would scandalize most of our sensibilities at what we pass off as African). If we’re not proud ambassadors…can we really bitch?

    @ la femme Afrique, welcome,…wow! Malaya- that’s a loaded one! Imagine trying to sell Mavi jeans in Kenya lol.

  6. egm

    That is so true. If we are not diligent in our showing to the world what the real deal is during these cultural shows, how then do we expect them to do likewise when it comes time for them to portray Africa? I was having this conversation with friends the other day, and one of them was saying how some of the things she saw at an African show at one Uni just convinced her that those in it must have been first generation Americans, cause there was no way some of that stuff they did could have been from someone genuinely from home.

    That Malaya surely is bad. I wouldn’t be surprised if the kid is one day absolved of matricide by a Kenyan court should they settle there!

  7. It doesn’t just happen with African names/languages.
    I had a teacher at school whose surname meant a certain part of the female anatomy in French.
    He had to have a separate passport to go to France.
    His subject….
    Go figure.

    As for those who mangle languages…Guilty as charged. We can’t all be perfect, but I agree inexcusable in a professional situation.

  8. @ egm…down with the cultural shows- they’re a good idea, but oftentimes the performers are just lazy.

    @ Chemosit…thanks for stopping by…as long as we don’t assume that it doesn’t matter when we mangle language, or represent ourselves as experts and keep learning…we’re fine. (I’ll confess to being somewhat unclear as to when ‘who’ or ‘whom’ applies ;).

  9. jambo (ati jambo)!yup, the whole misuse of most, if not all things african can be hilarious!but its quite annoying as well.youre post made me cheka, especially the muungano choir bit….at least if all else fails, we can jobo as choir members. i read one of kuki gallmans books…aish!i shall reserve that rant for another day.sometimes though, i think we, as in wakenya/africans play stupid when people are go mucking about with our heritage….hmmm

  10. Kaki

    I swear I am so through! In the age of the net and http://www.yale.edu/swahili/ please do not fluck up our beloved language.

  11. weary

    Ha, ha, serves you and afrofeminsta for reading such crap books! You should be reading the murogi wa kagogo’s etc and then you would definitely NOT encounter the same problem! However, all things considred, the post is too funny and is a perfect break in an otherwise endless, day. Cheerio,
    from nj**(name also is quite meaningless, some schools of thought think it comes from a nick name of a porcupine – this from the self same 90 year old grandad!!

  12. Simba in Swahili is lion. Simba in Shona means strength. Even in the Lion King (the movie that put the word Simba on the map), no where is it intimated that Simba means King. If Simba means King, then Mufasa should mean daddy King….or something.

    Upon her death, obituaries left, right and neutral said Aaliyah in Swahili meant ‘the light that shines brightly’ or some such thing to that effect. A pack of lies is what it is. Yes, welcome to America….the land where people connect to their roots and ancestors by calling themselves Mende and Fisi….what to do?

    What irks me even more, is after they jibandika themselves with these exotic names, they funkdify them…..this is when Kimani becomes Kymanee or Quemanee. What the heck I ask, do thay think you are doing

  13. Notenko kundenko? Hooow? Haki at least there’s “ndege” in ndegeocello.

    So each time you introduce yourself you are half expected to explain what your name means? Sheesh. Lakini you cracked me up with your post, haki.

    By the way, “Aaliyah” according to my granny means “dried sweet meats”!!

  14. LOL you’ve made my day and like you, it perplexes me that they cry Swahili in the nuisance. It IRKS me to the end of the world when ppl claim gibberish as being KISWAHILI..my goodness…STOP THE MADNESS! I’ve pulled a few over and given them references – not well taken but I’m sure that they sit and ponder and after the anger and disgrace has ebbed away they are on the right direction (so I convince myself). It’s of my opinion that they morph Kiswahili and a few years from now when we, the swahili speakers claim a word to be authentic we will be thwarted and written off as wannabes…
    Ok this reminds me of my disgust at KWANZA and its nguzo saba…WOLOLO!!!

  15. So erm does Panya mean rat in Swahili? (just checking!)

  16. @ mamashady, true, we need to better represent our heritage, otherwise we can’t really complain…
    @ kaki- I think the online Kamusi is great, there’s even wikipedia in Kiswahili (cool huh?)
    @ weary…Eh much as I love the Kikuyu language, Murogi might be above my reading level (which is somewhere at the intermediate level), however should Ngugi do an audiobook…I could be tempted…
    @ Dorothy…I bet if you google, you’ll find a Quemanee…or two out there, and I bet it will mean something like “All knowing King of the Universe”
    @ Ichiena, I gave up…the disappointment on people’s faces when I tell them that asking what my name means is like asking a guy called Simon what his name means
    @quintessential…I make it a point to e-mail writers e.g. in newspapers who wrongly attribute Kiswahili meanings to words. Recently I had the pleasure of telling one author that “Acoona” is in no way related to “Hakuna”…she was gracious in accepting the correction
    @ Beans, yes, Panya does mean rat (lol)…and naming a child Panya would be considered rather malevolent on the parent’s part 🙂

  17. If you go to http://www.kymani-marley.com/ u will find Bob Marley’s offspring. This one is truly funky and all. He hyphenates his name ….to read Ky-Mani……Christ help me, long live reggae and everything but please…..someone just shoot me!!

    My co-worker once asked me what my African name was because her African-Canadian friend was looking for an African name for her daughter soon to be born. When I told her my middle name, she said, “wow that sounds exotic…does it mean Queen or great warrior,” I was like “nope, it means sorghum flour” she was like…”what is sorghum flour?” I was like “exactly!!”

  18. What about calling someone I know Panya? (in the nicest way possible of course! :p )

    (just have to pray they don’t read your blog :D)

    Oh and I’ll add Panya to the list of names that I suggest to people when they ask me for there new babies! (very rarely happens, but it’s going to be fun seeing how many people actually listen to me!)

  19. @ dorothy…OK I didn’t know your name means sorghum flour…so when we have porridge made from sorghum flour (or is it millet?)…we’re drinking B… hmmm food for thought (literally).

    @ beans…I am v. afraid. Here I was thinking I was ‘educating’ you…kumbe (kiswahili for: little did I know) I was just arming your arsenal…I like![evil laugh]…better yet, you could see how many people you can get to declare that they notenka someone. Drat! I could have made a killing on Valentine’s day…picture this: “Say I love you to that special someone in Swahili!”…[more evil laughter accompanied by gleeful clapping]

  20. A wonderful way to begin my day. You have cracked me up! I just found out that peeps still call parts of Africa British East Africa and British West Africa….na isitoshe, some dude on Box Office America said that Blood Diamonds, the movie is about a fisherman from Sri Lanka…ai!!!

  21. Don’t be afraid! I’m still an innocent child yet! And yes it was education of some sorts! I’ll be testing whether the parents will actually bother to check what that means, so I’ll be passing the education on! (Obviously the person I’m going to refer to Panya in my blog will never know muhahahah!) [I’m glad you like- high five :p ]

    Haha, well theres always next year for that, and I like your train of thought 😉 (what is the actual words for I love you then?)

  22. Nyokabi

    So can you imagine what Talib Kweli says his name means?

  23. @ Vagabond- The way I see it is that for the ignorant, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone? What’s the difference? When you think how students of geography in Kenya learn about places like the Ruhr region, the St. Lawrence Seaway (one feature I knew of even before I came to Canada). Here, say you mention to the average person that you are from Nairobi, you might as well be from Timbuktu- same blank stare! I will give Canadians some credit- they do know Kenyans like to run lol.(I love it when Jay Leno walks around showing Americans pictures of their leaders and they’re like “Uh…is that Oprah?”…when it’s Condi…so revealing). In my experience Europeans seemed more knowledgeable of world geography (probably ’cause of their colonial past) than N. Americans

    @ beans…the actual words are…drumroll please…Ninakupenda (one word to say I Love You lol)…I’m sure there is a more prosaic way to say it, but this will do for garden variety declarations!

    @ Nyokabi, according to the folks from answers.com: Born in Brooklyn as the eldest of two sons born to college professors, Kweli’s first name, Talib, is an Arabic name meaning “the seeker or student,” while his last name is a Ghanaian name meaning “of truth or knowledge.”
    He escapes our wrath because he didn’t jibandika was named by his parents…and for all we know there is a Ghanaian language in which (remarkably like in Kiswahili) Kweli means truth or knowledge lol.(@ beans, bandika means to ‘stick something’ and jibandika in this context means to affix something e.g. a name to oneself)

  24. I love this blog….best there is out there if ya ask me.

    About running Kenyans, I am reminded of the Olympic Games in 2000, I was a student in Australia and working in adepartment store in Sydney. Tourists and athletes flocked the city and came to spend their money in the store….

    They would speak to me, I would reply and they would tell me my accent is vey ‘unique/interesting’ and ask where is it from? (not where Im I from uiiiiiiii). I would say Kenya. And in the Spirit of the Olympic flame, they would proceed to show me they know their sports trivia

    They: Kenya has many great runners.
    Me: Yes they do
    They: [pause] So do you run?
    Me: Yes, when dogs chase me, I will run for my life!

    Genralisations are bad sindio? Its like meeting one Nigerian soldier and assuming all Nigerians are soldiers…..ishindwe!

  25. egm

    Very interesting on generalization. Here’s a take on how generalization , with the requisite caveats, can be good

  26. Kaki

    Bosi is killing me..opps I mean sorghum flour 🙂 LOL!
    These days I dont even negate peoples long lived belief that their names mean ‘The royal goddess of light’ or ‘The one who all men want’. Many times it is connected to people’s self esteem so….I just nod and weep inside.

  27. It’s true…sometimes you’re too tired to be the roving ambassador, and you just let things slide…for every parent you dissuade from going the Panya route (pun intended), there will be three Ndegeocellos…ah well, let me get down to writing my next post…

  28. even the comments are like reading a whole other blog:)
    @weary: you are right, Jodi Picoult unfortunately is off my reading list. But honestly Ngugi. .. i don’t get him. . .let me not even pretend i will buy that book:)

    Btw. Mobius, doesn’t Jodi have an email normally in her books. . .you should write her. . .before she goes and massacres another language *grimacing*

  29. T

    You are hilarious! My workmate has been pestering me for a swahili phrase that she can tattoo on herself and after reading this post …

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