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