An adventure in communication

2009-01-22 00:00

A small book that arrived on the local scene shortly before Christmas is having an impact that belies its size. It’s called Forgive me, I’m an impatient mlungu (and other useful things to know how to say in Zulu). Despite this title, and being “bad-tempered sometimes”, its author and illustrator, Hilton resident Pam Sherriffs denies being impatient.

Although she is not impatient, Sherriffs is clearly passionate about the purpose behind the book. “Like many English-speaking South Africans, I have always wanted to learn Zulu and made the odd foray by doing a course or buying a dictionary. However, because Zulu is so different from English, it’s very daunting. It’s easier to give up and just keep living in a bubble of English that barely intersects with Zulu speakers, except on a terribly shallow and limited level.

“I decided to pluck up the courage and start to speak Zulu to people I encountered like those in the office and my domestic employees. Because I couldn’t remember the simplest things from one day to the next, I started writing them down and practising the next day. That is how I came to collect the snippets of conversation that make up the book. It has 52 in all, the idea being that if you practise one simple thing a week, in a year’s time, you’ll be speaking a lot more Zulu than you did when you started.”

Sheriffs wrote, illustrated and published the book herself and designer Fiona Crookes laid it out. Several Zulu speakers were consulted to check the language. Its unusual small size is designed to fit conveniently into a pocket or handbag making it easily portable.

It is specifically for South Africans and geared to the kind of encounters they have daily. Sherriffs explained: “I found a Zulu guidebook for tourists that told you how to say things that weren’t really relevant like ‘Where is the dentist?’ and ‘My air-conditioning system is broken’. I put things in my book that I found useful, like talking about the weather, transport and dogs.” There are also sections on other well-known features of South African life such as soccer, taxis, meetings, bereavement, waiting in queues and dealing with bureaucracy, which gave rise to the book’s title. It is taken from section 32 about consulting an official, while section 39 contains phrases to use when you want to apologise for someone else’s rudeness. Sherriffs laughed: “Translated, those sentences mean ‘I am sorry this person is being rude, she must have ants in her pants’. Both expressions can change an unpleasant experience of ‘us and them’ into a humorous encounter.”

Of her own efforts to speak Zulu, she said: “I am only conversant in a very limited and stuttering way, but I have got to know all sorts of people. I can even tell a joke in Zulu. You have to be brave and a bit humble, but people are generally very nice. I found that they will generously and patiently help if you’re prepared to try.”

She is pleased with the response she has had to her book so far. Sales are going well and several outlets have already placed a second order. “I love to hear that people are using the book and finding it helpful, which has happened in some unexpected ways. I took some copies with me to a wedding in Johannesburg and showed it to people at the reception. One guest was very taken with the section about soccer and went about practising on other guests. A businessman I know bought it in bulk and gave it to all his staff. I gave a copy to my gardener, who lives with his grandmother. He couldn’t locate it one day and found she had taken it over and was using it to learn English.”

In her “day job” Sherriffs works for the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Black Rhino Range Expansion project. In partnership with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the project identifies areas of land big enough to establish founder populations of black rhino. How then, did she come to produce a Zulu phrase book? Sherriffs said: “I did it as an adventure and because I believe in it. Doing something that takes you out of what you know, is an adventure. I decided that being in South Africa, you can either worry your life away or you can engage in a positive way. It might make no difference, but neither does worrying. It cannot hurt you to engage with people and be positive.

“My hope for the book is that it will help open the door to people getting to know each other and break down some barriers.” A modest hope, perhaps, but one that could have consequences that are anything but — just like the book itself.

• Forgive me, I’m an impatient mlungu, (and other useful things to know how to say in Zulu) is available for less than R100 from Bookworld at Cascades, Exclusive Books in the Liberty Midlands Mall and Midlands Stationers in Howick. For more information, contact Pam Sherriffs at 083 943 1754.

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