Mozambique #25 Local Language Fun


One of my new interests and hobbies has been learning the local dialect of Changana, which is a language in the Bantu family and is related to Zulu, Ronga, Machope, Tsonga and a few other obscure dialects. This language group generally covers the north eastern corner of South Africa, southern Mozambique, including the capital of Maputo, and up into Zimbabwe. When the European colonizers divided up Africa they had no regards for cultural or linguistic ties, but made arbitrary lines on the map; hence the wide spread of these languages across borders. It is also interesting to encounter words that sound awfully similar to their English equivalents. A watch in Changana is watchy,a book is booky, a teacher is teacha, to read is the same as the Portuguese verb, ler. I think this is evidence that throughout the evolution of the language and hence the culture, these words and ideas were not originally developed here, but instead were imported from foreign exposure.


I would never say that I am fluent in Changana, but I have learned enough to have basic conversations, greet people, do all of my market business, talk scatology and very importantly, insult people. Do not underestimate the importance of insulting people, it has saved me many times from being ripped off. In passing people I can understand the gist of peoples conversations, but certainly not in its entirety.  I have discovered how incredibly valuable and entertaining it is to understand a language that nobody expects you to understand. My teachers are the women who sell vegetables in the market, and other friends in the community. Usually I spend thirty minutes per day in the market just chatting with the women, and when I come across a word I don’t know, or something I want to say, but don’t know how, I ask them and write it down in a notebook. They are used to this little routine by now, but found it incredibly funny at first.


Being a bantu language, Changana is totally different than any language spoken in the west. There are an assortment of interesting sounds that don’t exist in my previous linguistic repertoire such as grunting, whistling between the teeth and sounds that are normally reserved for throat clearing, hissing and clearing out boogers. Except these sounds are mixed into the middle of words, which makes for some funny sounding conversations to the untrained ears. Every language in the world has its own characteristic patterns of sounds, pitches, textures, and rhythms that our lips, tongues, teeth and breath have learned how to make. In order to learn Changana I literally had to retrain my mouth to make sounds that previously I did not have the capacity to do. When writing down words in my notebook I get right up in the face of the speaker and watch how their mouth moves when they make the word. My women teachers like this as well, and have learned to face me and speak slowly as they repeat new words. They probably think I am quite dumb, but when it comes to Changana I am but a child learning for the first time. Imagine a mother standing in front of a baby saying ma – ma, ma – ma very slowly. Except now it’s a little more complicated “swa-nan-zia, swa–nan–zia”.


There are three large factors that have contributed to my learning Changana with relative ease, and none of them are because I am amazing at learning languages. Languages are like math problems, once you figure out the pattern and the formula, it’s a simple task of applying the rules and memorizing vocabulary. The first factor is that grammatically speaking, Changana is a very simple language. There are three verb tenses; past present and future and the verb stems don’t conjugate like they do in Portuguese or English. I will give a small example to demonstrate. Here is the verb to like. Ku Randza.


Mena Ni randza – I like


Wena U randza – you like


Yena A randza – he/she likes


Hena Hi randza – we like


Vona Va randza – they like




And in order to make the sentence negative you simply add a in front.




So I don’t like becomes:


A ni randza.



For the past tense you simply add ili to each verb stem :


Mena Ni randzili – I liked


Wena U randzili – you liked ………etc



For the future tense you add in front – ta – :


Mena ni ta randza – I will like


Wena u ta randza – you will like …. Etc


So, the general structure of Changana is very simple, although there are certain irregulars and special cases, like any language.


The second factor is that the general level of conversation that people have in Changana is very simple. In casual conversation most people are not delving into abstract philosophy or engaging in work that requires a highly specialized vocabulary. The basic level of conversation I hear around town is mostly related to daily chores, eating, cooking, selling or buying things, relationships and family. Lucky for me, James Joyce did not speak Changana, hence the vocabulary is quite simple and repetitive. Also there are many verbs that have double meaning, which simplifies things even more. For example the verb to want and to need are the same.


The third contributing factor is the fact that I am immersed in Changana. In the larger cities in Mozambique, Portuguese is the primary language heard in the streets, but in the villages and smaller communities such as Manjacaze its usually only dialect that is spoken. So just by hearing a thousand times the same greetings, chitchat and market gossip, my brain has just passively absorbed the language like a sponge. It has been quite fun going from hearing strange mouth noises to actually understanding the meaning associated with those funky noises. This is a double edged sword however as not understanding anything usually made for the perception of quiet and solitude, even amongst bustling markets and crowded taxis. However now I hear words and meaning, my brain latches on, and markets become noisy and distracting places. Understanding is not a conscious choice, it either happens or it doesn’t, and once you cross that barrier into understanding you cannot easily go back.


The real fun in speaking Changana however is playing around with people. As I said before, everybody assumes I don’t speak and so they will openly gossip about me, thinking I don’t understand a word they are saying. My strategy for maximizing the fun is to let them speak, gossip, discuss my appearance, the fact that I am not married or whatever it is they are talking about, and then confront them, in Changana. One time in a taxi the women were talking about how they saw me riding my bike way outside of town, and that they thought my cycling clothing looked funny. I turned around and told them that I love riding my bike and that I thought their cloth headwraps looked strange. The looks on their faces were absolutely priceless and they began apologizing profusely for talking about me.


Oftentimes people will refer to me by the term “mulungo” which literally means white man, and is borderline offensive, sort of like the South American gringo equivalent. Usually in groups of men, there is always one obnoxious idiot that wants to show off in front of his friends and make some derogatory comment about me as I pass, always using this term mulungo. He will usually ask me, “hey white man, where are you going?” however using the diminutive form of the word in order to be insulting. I like to respond in Changana, “Thank you for asking black man, I am going to your house to visit your wife, play with your kids and eat all your food”. I haven’t been beat up yet, and the obnoxious men are rightly put in their place.


The best is speaking Changana in Maputo, as white people are fairly common, however white people speaking Changana are very rare. I make friends incredibly easy when speaking Changana, as people tell me that it demonstrates that I relate well with the people and have an interest in the culture. I have gotten loads of discounts and free stuff in the markets just by speaking, and its really too easy to make people laugh. I just start talking about bathroom humor, the swear words that I learned or harmless little insults and I immediately have a crowd around me listening and laughing. People tell me all the time that when I go back to the US I must teach people to speak Changana. I try to explain the futility as obviously nobody speaks it, nor probably has ever heard of it.



In front of my office there is a nice old cashew tree that people are accustomed to sitting in the shade and getting absolutely hammered on the locally brewed corn beer. They usually yell things at me and I yell back. This day there was a guy playing the guitar, and actually quite well, so I went over and danced around a bit with them. The guitar player stopped playing because he said he was tired. So I bought him more beer to energize him. The song is about trying to cross the border into South Africa.



Mozambique #24 One Year Thoughts

One year thoughts…

Time is relative. If a strategy to measure the passing of time is simply to count the number of novel events that can be crammed into a designated interval, to make time seem relatively slow one could stuff it full of novel experience.  Habit, routine and conservative expectations seem to make time fly. Moving to another environment, speaking a foreign language, being immersed in a foreign culture and constructing a life and routine completely from scratch in this new context has seen the past year absolutely stuffed with novelty. The relative effects being that I feel like I have been in Mozambique FOREVER! I feel like I have lived an entire lifetime here; my infantile first trips to the well, honing my daily routine and habituating to living conditions and of course the first failures, successes and realizations I have had about working in international development. Here are a few realizations I have had in the past year living in Mozambique. These are inspired only from getting out of my home culture and experiencing life from the Mozambican perspective.

A question I asked myself was if I had not come to Mozambique, but instead stayed at home working the job I was working, earning about $20,000 a year, would that money bring me the amount of happiness and exploration that this past year has provided to me? For me, obviously not. Money is good, but only as a means to an end, and the best things in my life right now are absolutely priceless. Living simply is a virtue. I live an extremely Spartan lifestyle by western standards, however I can honestly say that I am not lacking in anything of necessity. Sure there are things that would make my life more comfortable, or add some novel excitement, but there really is nothing uncomfortable about pooping in a hole every day.

The effects of culture are stronger than I had ever imagined. I am so conditioned to see the world in a certain way, thanks to the cultural, educational and terrestrial environment that I was formed in. The Mozambicans are ridiculously conditioned as well. When I observe other people’s conditioning that is so foreign from my own it makes it easier to realize my own, just from the contrast.

Needs and wants are totally relative. Human beings need very little to be happy in general. The fact that I can go 300km into the interior of Mozambique and find relatively happy people living an extremely harsh lifestyle brought this to my attention. This lifestyle would never make ME happy, but to each his own. In my experience it seems that the thing that most people need in some form is love. Whether its family, community or other social groups, people want to be loved and accepted in the way that only human relationships can provide.

People everywhere are generally the same. This is the most cliché travel related statement and I didn’t even want to mention it, but it is so true. However to continue on this theme, the fact that people are generally the same has made me very pessimistic about the fate of the human race. This thought comes from traveling in other parts of the world as well, but in general, most people are very ignorant about the ecological effects their lifestyles have upon the Earth. Trash is thrown in the street or burned, no thoughts are given about cutting down forests or preserving animal species, there is very little respect for life in general and most people are frighteningly short-sighted when it comes to their health and the health of their immediate environment. History is a race between education and planetary ecological disaster. Only time will tell which side will win, but I am not optimistic.

Two years is a really long time. Before I moved to Mozambique I naively assumed that after my two years was up I would just move back to the US and continue with my plan for the future that I had before leaving. I totally discounted what the effects of living in Mozambique would do to my worldview, values and future plans. There are a lot of question marks right now and I foresee acculturating to the US again as being very difficult.

I have learned a lot about foreign aid and working in the development industry. Through my own experiences I have seen how difficult it is to bring about behavior change and I have become quite skeptical of large aid organizations and mega projects. There are definitely success stories, mostly in immediate impact health related aid, however many programs I have seen are not accomplishing their goals. Why? A lot of reasons, but from what I can tell, lack of interest amongst the target populations and approaching the information to be taught from a western perspective rather than contextualizing it. The aid industry is well aware of these problems, but that still doesn’t explain the ridiculous sums of money being dumped into Mozambique each year with dubious results. Another foreigner working at an NGO recently said to me “if you work in development and don’t have an existential crisis about your work at least once a year you are quite abnormal”. I am not criticizing without reason and I have ideas that I think would work better, however that right there would be a whole separate post.

Nothing worthwhile or truly beautiful happens overnight. Gardens take time to grow, relationships need time to build rapport, projects need careful planning and follow up. The local Mozambican man who taught me how to graft fruit trees told me “before you do anything in life, you must learn patience; without patience you will never accomplish anything grand because you will have already moved on to the next thing”. Mozambique has taught me patience and will continue to do so. Living here is a roller coaster of emotion and patience is my mantra as it all passes by.

The honey moon phase is over. I would never say that I have exhausted anything about this wonderful country, but the novelty factor for many experiences is gone. This has contributed to my recent blogging silence. Its not that fun things aren’t happening, or that I don’t have stories to tell, its just that I have gotten so used to the lifestyle here that things westerners would find story worthy are commonplace and slip right under my radar. I will think hard, stay open and write more stories when I dedicate time.

Photos: Family comes to Mozambique! We toured around and had a great time, good food and lots of laughter. I love you guys.

Good food pictures as well. Those dried insects were delicious, they had a taste sort of like nutritional yeast.

Saw dust cook stove that ive been obsessed with lately. All my beans get cooked like this now. Cooking wood is expensive, produces a lot of smoke and doesn’t last long, not to mention the trees that had to be cut down. These sawdust stoves burn for 5-6 hours, are really cheap to make (sawdust is practically free) and produces no smoke. The trouble for me in sharing this idea is finding someone who is willing to try it in their home. Oh well. Patience.