Every Peace Corps Volunteer must learn the local language of their host country. In Rwanda, that language is Kinyarwanda. In some ways, it is a simple language; yet it is also in some ways very complicated.
During our three month training period here in Rwanda, we sometimes faced up to six hours a day of language lessons. One of my language teachers described Kinyarwanda as a “poor” language. What she meant by this is that Kinyarwanda has few words. This makes it difficult, for example, to find parallel words from English that have the same meaning in Kinyarwanda. While this may be true of all languages (look at the trouble modern scholars go through to give a proper translation of ancient texts), it is compounded by the lack of choices for words in Kinyarwanda. So whenever we would ask her to translate a word from English to Kinyarwanda, this teacher would pause and look at us while thinking, and then give us some word that we were already familiar with as a translation of some other word. This is why she called Kinyarwanda a “poor” language.
Here are some examples. Examine how many words are in the English language, especially the number of adjectives. When we derive pleasure from something, we could describe it as good, nice, sweet, superior, excellent, and so on. By contrast, there is one root word in Kinyarwanda that expresses the sentiment of goodness, -za (the beginning of the adjective changes depending on the class of the noun that it is describing, e.g. neza, cyiza, beza). There is no differentiation. What's good is good.
Another example is our expression of the five senses as verbs in English: to hear, to see, to feel (by touch), to smell, to taste. There is much less distinction in Kinyarwanda. The verb kumva can be translated as to hear, to smell, to taste, to feel, and to understand. Often Rwandans who are learning English will come up to me and tell me that they are understanding some music, pointing to the headphones over their ears. A common phrase that I hear Rwandans say to each other is “Urumva?” This could mean “Are you listening?”, “Can you hear me?” or “Do you understand?”
Interestingly, Kinyarwanda does have a word for delicious, -aryoshye, from the verb to taste good, kuryoha. This word seems to be related to another verb, kuroha, which means to be easy or to be soft. The spelling and pronunciation of these words is very similar, and I believe they could even be substituted for each other. I recall one night during training when my host mother told me in English to eat some meat because “it is easy.” I’m not sure which word she mistranslated. She may have been trying to tell me that the meat was delicious, or that it was soft (which it was, and it was the first time I had tender meat in Rwanda), or both.
I think this is very telling of the diet in Rwanda. When discussing food, I am often told by my colleagues that many Rwandans prefer quantity over quality. They would rather eat a large amount of beans and cassava root and have a full stomach than eat a lighter amount of a full range of vegetables and rice. For many Rwandans, this is not by choice as they live in poverty. But as Rwanda develops, I see a continuation of the old dietary habits, even among those who can afford to eat better and eat less. Compare this to our own disproportion of meat to vegetable ratio and even portion sizes in America, even though we are less physically active than previous generations. Dietary habits are difficult to change.
But back to my point, in Rwanda it seems that food preferences can best be described as foods that are “easy” to eat rather than foods that are “delicious” to eat. I watch in awe whenever I see a Rwandan eat; especially when they eat meat. Rwandans make no differentiation between muscle, ligament, fat, veins, and intestines. If it’s not bone, then down the hatch it goes. I try my best to match these eating habits, especially if I’ve paid for an expensive round of brochettes (goat kabobs) at the bar. But I just can’t seem to always get it down with the same ease as my Rwandan friends. If it’s a large piece of “meat” that I can’t chew down, I don’t even try to swallow it for fear that I will choke and die. I suspect that Rwandans prefer “easy” food because it fits their liking of eating a lot of food quickly.
There are many other examples I could give to show that Kinyarwanda has very few words compared to English, but I think I’ve made my point. While some might say this makes Kinyarwanda a “poor” language, I like to look at it from a more philosophical standpoint. There’s beauty in simplicity.
We might say that adjectives in English can be placed on a scale. After all, we have comparatives and superlatives (e.g. good, better, best), a concept that appears to be absent in Kinyarwanda. We could, for example, place the word good at the bottom of a scale, then move up that scale to words like great, superb, excellent, and so on. Each word, as we move up the scale, intensifies the concept that we wish to communicate, yet we are still communicating the same basic concept of goodness. Kinyarwanda seems to exist in a world of black and white, throwing out the scale completely. If something is good, then it is good, no matter how good it is. The same goes for something that is bad.
Sometimes I think that we over-complicate our messages in English. We use grandiose vocabulary to express concepts that could often be simplified to “good” or “bad.” Yet, at the same time, one can find satisfaction in the richness and depth of the choice that we have in vocabulary in the English language. Imagine how drab poetry and literature would be if we didn’t have such a wide range of words to choose from. This may be a large factor in the lack of literature, besides the bible, which is written in Kinyarwanda.
Nevertheless it is nice at times to stop for a moment while reading in English and imagine how the text could be translated into simpler words, such as those used in Kinyarwanda. It can make the complicated problems of our world seem so silly. After all, the simplest answers are often the correct solution.