to be African, to be Woman, to be Creative, to be Fashionable, to be Intelligible, to be be IMARA

imara by Mshana

This is the canvas and the pages on which I curate and display the life I wish to create for myself and other liminal hu-women like myself. I explore here my passion for fashion, present my literally inspired visual arts, write my visual arts inspired written works, share my linguistics, travel diaries, show my finding comfort in food, and heck, whatever else I feel like... Welcome and enjoy!

Confessions of a bilingual orator

linguistic liminality


I am what you would call a bilingual orator.  A two-language speaker. The two languages I speak find individual chambers in which to stay in my brain without mixing, but the two depend on each other and form one whole language with which I speak, with which I exist.

My spirit, it speaks Swahili. I learned my Catechism in Swahili. I can only communicate with God in this language, because it is the language through which I was introduced to Him. Do not ask me to pray in English. I can try, but chances are I will fail miserably. I simply do not know how to. I have heard what other people say when they say prayers in English, and they are no different from my Swahili prayers. But I, I can never say those words to God in English and mean them the same way as I would in Swahili.

My intellect on the other hand speaks English. Intellectual conversations are purely processed in English and I lack the basic vocabulary for intellectual conversations in Swahili. I know not the words enlightenment, liberty, superiority, patriarchy or feminism in Swahili even though I am well-versed in the discourse of such matters.

My culture is a mixture of the two, so my social engagements are never in either language. I socialize with a mixed tongue. Honestly, there are some phrases that one simply cannot say in English. Imagine a person attempting to say, “ni shigidi shida” in English! The statement is practically words, a feeling, an experience and an identity in one, to translate it would be to rob it of all the underlying meanings.

When it comes to interacting with friends with whom I only have one language in common, you can imagine the complications. I am often restricted to using only half my vocabulary and so I implore a lot of body language. In written conversations where I do not have the aid of nonverbals, I opt for formal tones in order to make sure I am not misunderstood. The result is usually seemingly over-polished and overly formal sentences.

When I tell tales about the realities of the coexistence of my two tongues in this way, most find it deeply impressive and test to see if I am truly capable of separating the two when I speak. I can and I do to their amusement. However, in the privacy of my room, I sob. I detest the fact that I only possess partial vocabularies of either language. I most definitely hate having to use overly explained sentences to reach a point that others reach with a few words.

The worst part, however, is having to translate word for word, from one language to another, every time I am asked to communicate in one language something that I only know in the other. There are a few inconsiderate people who would point out how my Swahili has an English accent or my English has a Swahili accent to taunt me. In public, I often brush off their comments by bragging that at least I speak two languages. In private, I spend hours learning more of both languages to improve my vocabulary. However, given my circumstances, my efforts are often futile. With English, I often find myself happy enough just getting by and, with Swahili, I am living in countries where there are no other speakers to naturally learn from. As a result, I frequently find myself uncomfortable writing in either language. Growing insecurities would often take from me the love, the thrill and the desire to write. I remember trying to write in English and feeling amiss, and trying in Swahili and failing miserably. So, I stopped writing for a while.

When the moment of reconciliation of my two tongues came, I found my voice. I found a third language in which my authentic voice pierced through the layers of insecurity. An in-between, simple, poetic and multicultural tongue. This is the language I write with, I dream in and I get by with today. It is a tongue of “for-lack-of-better words”. A tongue of experiencing in one language and communicating the experience in another. I unlock the poetry in translations and the narrations in over explanations and treat those as works of art when delivering them in writing. I stop getting lost in translations and find myself in them. Instead of fighting the confusions I have learnt to love and roll with them, truly becoming a bilingual orator.