I had been speaking Swahili since, well, since I learnt to talk. With all languages, a young boy would learn swear words quite early on. I knew three swear words, but only knew the meaning of two of them.
You tended to learn such language at school and these particular words were entrusted to me in Kenya. While Swahili is understood in Uganda, the local language in Kampala was Luganda and maybe for this reason I didn’t ask my friends the meaning of the third word.
So here is what not to do, ask one of the servants. But my curiosity got the better of me. I was in the kitchen talking to Ogano, our cook, when I finally gathered up the courage to ask. My timing was impeccable, he was cutting vegetables with a large knife and I stood on the opposite side of the kitchen table.
The words in Swahili that were supposed to come out of my mouth were: “Do you know what [the third word] means?” But instead, I said, “Why you [the third word]?” I sensed I had done something wrong as an angry ex-soldier picked up the sharp knife and proceeded to chase me twice around the table and out of the back door.
I kept out of sight for the rest of the day and only returned when my parents were in the house. It took a few days and a great deal of apologising for me to feel safe with Ogano.
A few years later while working in London, I was reminiscing with a colleague from Zanzibar, and I asked him if he knew the meaning of the third word. Suffice to say I won’t ever use that word again.