Whenever I sit down to write emails, newsletters, blog posts, letters, or have conversations with folks back in the US, I constantly have to think about what new words or terminology I have learned and use here. I try to edit myself to make sure I’ll be fully comprehensible, but some words have become part of my everyday vocabulary and it’s difficult. I thought, as I prepare for my final few months here, and I look to getting back to the US in August (holy moly is time flying), I would share a South African Vocab list with you all as a reference. Of course, much of what I hear on a daily basis is spoken in isiZulu, and that would have to be a whole other blog or even a book to start introducing isiZulu to you all back home (plus I still have so much of it to learn myself). This will primarily be the English words I hear, or common terms for things in my day-to-day life here. Some definitions will be brief, others I’ll try to add some context to.
The first thing to know is that the English spoken and written here is British English. The spellings differ from American English, as well as some terminology. For example:
-Boot: The trunk of a car.
-Holiday: A common word for vacation. Recently, I took a holiday to Cape Town.
-Hoot: Honking a car horn.
-Petrol: Gas. For example, instead of going to the gas station, you go to the petrol station.
-Toilet: The bathroom. This is key. Many houses here have the toilet in a separate room from their bath. So, I quickly learned that if you ask to use someone’s “bathroom” when you’re visiting their home, you get a lot of weird looks. “Why does this strange white girl want to take a bath in my house?” Instead, you ask to use the toilet.
Transportation is a bit different here. The biggest distinction: driving on the left side of the road. This also means keeping left in the lanes on a highway, and left turns have the right of way. Alongside this, the driver’s side of the car is on the right instead of the left. This definitely took some time getting used to, anytime I saw a car coming at us from the right side I would flinch and await imminent collisions. Luckily, I don’t drive here. Though, after living here for eight months, I’ve grown used to it, and I’m actually a bit worried I’m going to drive on the left side of the road once I get back to the US. It’ll take some practice. Some transportation vocabulary:
-Robot: Traffic lights. For example, you may hear “the robot turned green, you can go now.” I’ve heard that this is because when traffic lights were introduced here, the closest thing folks here could compare them to were robots.
-Kombi (kohm-bee): Large communal taxis. They are often either 15-passenger vans, or larger airport shuttle type vehicles. These are what I take to and from town. They differ from meter taxis here, which are comparable to a taxi in the US. I often take one kombi from my house to the taxi rank, and then one more to town. It takes about 20-30 minutes and costs me 9 rand to go either way. You can take them short distances or long distances – even to travel hours and hours if needed. They are the primary method of transportation in townships; many people cannot afford cars. There is no set schedule for kombis, they run once they are full. Sometimes people get to the kombi and it is immediately ready to go, other times, there can be quite a long wait before it leaves. It’s just another part of the laid back relationship that this country has with time. Also, there is no sense of personal space on a Kombi. The drivers wait until every seat is full, and sometimes they are willing to add a few extra people beyond capacity. You often end up practically on the lap of the person next to you. I guess it can be a good way to get to know people in your community, but really it’s just a good way to get nice and sweaty.
-Taxi Rank: Basically a bus station for kombis. The one in my township is pretty small – about 20 taxis start and leave from there. But the bigger the area, the bigger the rank. When my fellow YAGMs and I took our first kombi rides in Pietermaritzburg upon arriving in country, we stopped at a rank with probably 100-200 kombis. It can be a bit hectic to find the right one, as none of the kombis are marked. This is where the kindness and hospitality of people here comes in handy; I’ve never gotten on the wrong kombi because people are so willing to help me find where I need to go.
-Bakkies (back-ees): A pickup truck that can act as a taxi, van, bus, or really anything to transport people. The back of the truck often has a cover and benches inside, and transports people to and fro. They are more common in rural areas, but can be found everywhere. Bakkies act as school buses or can be used in place of kombis – a fellow YAGM takes a bakkie into town whenever she needs groceries. They can also be uncovered. Riding in the back of pickup trucks, or bakkies, is extremely common here.
Now I’ll just share some common words that I hear in my community. Some of these words are isiZulu, some are English, and others I’m not quite sure where they come from!
-Tekkies (teh-kees): Tennis shoes. I love this word. I want to use this word forever. It is so cute.
-Sorry: I’m assuming you all know the meaning of the word “sorry.” Here, it can apply to almost any situation. If I was telling someone that I had a bad day, if I got bumped into while walking down the street, or even if I just tripped over the curb (not that that happens often or anything)(okay, it happens most weeks) then I’ll hear a chorus of “sorry!” surrounding me. It’s used more as a way of saying “I’m sorry that happened to you,” instead of “I’m sorry for doing that to you.”
-Soapies: Nighttime Soap Operas. Soapies are very popular here. They run from about 6:30-10:30 Monday-Thursday. If we’re home when they are on, they are almost always playing on our TV, as well as most other houses I’ve been to around here in the evening. There are dozens of them playing on the main channels here, so there’s no way to watch them all. Some of the ones we watch are “Generations: The Legacy,” “Skeem Saam,” “The Queen,” “Isibaya,” and “The Lockdown.” Soapies have been really cool to follow, because they are generally in the language from the area where they are set. Many are in isiZulu, and captioned in English, so it’s my way of “practicing” my isiZulu… or at least that’s what I tell myself. Others are in the 10 other national languages here, but are almost always captioned in English. The Soapies also show different cultures from around the rainbow nation, and portray things that are happening in current events, or different movements. Sometimes they follow crazy soap opera plots with love and murder, but other times they follow school, racism and race relations post-apartheid, sexuality, religion, and families.
-Leagues: In the church, there are different “leagues.” There is the Youth League (ages 12-35ish), the Young Adult League (ages 30-50ish), the Women’s Prayer League (ages 40+ish), and the Men’s League (ages 40+ish). Folks in my area will often join a league, in which they pay a membership fee for the year and attend lots of conferences and events. The women get together to pray most weeks; the youth meet up pretty regularly as well. The leagues run many fundraisers for the church, Bible studies, leadership conferences, and revivals. I have attended conferences for each league here to get a picture of the church and how it operates in my area. I’ve been to most of the youth league conferences here, and it’s where I’ve made many of my friends in the community. In some of my photos, you may notice that people in church are wearing black and white uniforms – each league has their own uniform that they wear for the events they have, as well as most Sundays of church. It’s very common for pretty much everyone to join a league in my area, but the participation levels differ by each area of the country.
-Braai (bra-ee): Barbecue, or grilling meat. It can both be used as a verb or as a noun: to braai meat, or to attend a Braai. The word “barbecue” here just refers to the sauce; braai refers to the grilling of the meat. Often a Braai will be held as a celebration – at the end of a conference, at a birthday party, or as a get-together with friends and family. The church is hosting a huge Braii after the Easter service on Sunday. Braais consist of a whole bunch of meat. Usually there is braaid chicken, steak, and boerewors (a type of sausage, like a bratwurst). I’ve never had as much meat as I’ve eaten in South Africa.
-Shisa Nyama (shee-sah nn-yah-mah): the isiZulu words for “hot meat.” Shisa: hot or burn. Nyama: Meat. A Shisa Nyama generally refers to a location, essentially a barbecue eatery. The one near our township is next door to a butcher. You start at the butcher and pick out the meat you want. They have every option you could imagine: pretty much every part of a chicken, cow, goat, sheep, or pig. I’ve tried ox heart, kidneys and livers galore, steaks, chickens, boerewors, cow tongue, tripe (intestines), sheep neck, meat I cannot even tell what it is, and “walkie talkies” (the beaks and feet of a chicken. Get it? Walkies? Talkies?). Once you buy your meat from the butcher, you go next door to the Shisa Nyama and they braai your meat for you, and add delicious braai spices. If you’re looking for somewhere to have a platter of meat served with on a slab of wood with no utensils except your hands, this is the place for you.
-Tuck Shop: a sort of snack shop in the Townships. They are often run from people’s homes or garages. Some tuck shops carry some groceries; most tuck shops primarily sell snacks and essentials. There is one about three houses down from our house, and it is where we usually get bread. They also have an assortment of snacks and drinks, and it’s always a struggle to not load up on junk food while I’m there.
-Serviettes: Napkins. Turns out the word “napkins” here refers to either children’s diapers or menstruation pads. Learned that one pretty quickly too. But only after a few stares and glares in restaurants after I asked for a napkin with my meal.
-Yebo (yeh-boh): the Zulu word for “yes.”
-Hibo (high-boh): A sort of exclamation. This is often used as a way of saying “wow!” It can convey shock, surprise, or any exaggerated emotion.
-Rand: the currency in South Africa. This year it has been fluctuating around 12 rand equaling 1 US dollar.
-Lobola (loh-boh-la): A dowry, or literally translated: a bride price. Dowries are still a very present part of the Zulu culture. Traditionally, men will present their fiancé’s family with an agreed upon number of cows. The cows can either be used as livestock or meat, or sold for a sum of rand. The idea is that the husband must prove to the wife’s family that he is able to financially take care of their daughter. There are lobola parties, similar to engagement parties, in which the whole community will come and present gifts for the families. Some modern versions of lobola are gifts instead of cows. The Zulu king has recently stated that he believes that lobolas are no longer necessary in relationships – and that too many families are abusing the system and asking for too much of the future husbands. They may begin to phase out the system. It’s been fascinating, and often difficult, to experience this aspect of the culture as I’ve been here. My host mom, Mbali, is engaged. Her fiancé currently lives elsewhere for work, but they are getting ready to start lobola negotiations.
-Gogo: Grandmother. It can also be a term to call an older woman to show respect. It conveys honor, and the acknowledgment that with age, comes wisdom. The Zulu people have a large admiration for their elders and ancestors. It’s what I call Mama Mngoma, the gogo who drives me to work each day and whom I often sit with in church. She makes sure to introduce me as her granddaughter to everyone we meet. Women are called “mama,” younger women are “sisi” (sister), men are “baba” (father) or “bhuti” (brother).
Hope this all helps, and gives you a bit more of a picture of what I’m up to over here!