Seeing Beauty in the Chaos: Enjoying Imbrication.

(This is a linguistics post, but it has reminded me of the wonderful creativity of God. Skip to the end for this part!)

Lately, one of the problems I have been working on has been figuring out the reasons behind some very strange word endings.

In Kabwa (as in all Bantu languages – the big language family that Kabwa belongs to), pieces can be added onto words to add meaning (this is called “agglutination” – sounds like glue and acts like it too!).

This means that you can have a lot of fun, especially with verbs, adding together different endings to change the meaning slightly.

Sometimes the pieces stick together in a nice row, and it is obvious what pieces have been added.

However, sometimes the sounds in the different pieces like to play around and a totally different ending is created.
This is one of the difficulties I encounter when I’m checking the spelling of some Kabwa words.

One specific ending /-iri/ is used in some past tenses; /-iri/ really likes to play with its neighbours …

(For these examples I used the Kabwa verb /rih/ which means ‘pay’)

The pieces:

The outcome:






He has paid




He has paid on behalf of someone else




He has avenged (or made to pay)




He has been paid




He has avenged on behalf of someone else




He has been paid on behalf of someone else




He has been avenged on behalf of someone else


But then it gets more confusing, because sometimes the same ending (or almost the same) can be created from different pieces being added together, without the /-iri/ piece …

The pieces:

The outcome:






He should pay on behalf of someone else




He should avenge on behalf of someone else




He should be paid on behalf of someone else




He should be avenged on behalf of someone else


Those of you who have made it this far might be interested to know that the technical term for these pieces of words playing and overlapping is “imbrication“. This term can also be used to talk of actual overlapping in sedimentology, tiling, and surgery – fun!


At first, the mixture of all these different endings seemed like such a mess to me. But now that I can see the pattern, it really does seem sort of beautiful!

It has reminded me that often our lives can seem to be in a bit of a mess; we can’t make sense of everything; we can’t see the reason and the plan behind it all.

But the same God who created the universe, who created the wealth of intricately beautiful languages in the world, he created us. He wove us together and he has woven our lives together. We may not always be able to see the rhyme and reason, but he does, and sometimes that has to be enough.

Psalm 139 talks about this as well (verses 13-16) (NIV):

“For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”



Unwelcome Guests.

A week ago I returned from our organisation’s annual conference in Dar es Salaam. It was a very refreshing week, with some good Bible teaching, many times of singing together, lots of fun with friends, and also our general meeting.

I arrived back in Musoma about 8pm at night. It was dark, and I was looking forward to my bed after a day of travelling.

But I found my house surrounded by a cloud of teeny, tiny, buzzing, Lake flies.

This is one of the hazards of living on the shores of Lake Victoria; sometimes clouds of tiny flies come off the lake, and they really enjoy congregating around our security lights and getting into the house through every possible nook and cranny.

This meant that even more cleaning than normal has been necessary this last week …


Fortunately lake flies live for only a day, so the next day most of them were dead (and therefore much easier to remove!). This is just a fraction of what I swept out of the house.


There was a carpet of them on our back veranda.


And yes, the dogs like to eat them … weird …


More piled outside the front door.


And heaps on the inside window ledges … bleugh!

But, I’m very thankful for our hoover (a.k.a. vacuum cleaner, for the non-Brits among you), especially for the handle extension which meant I could just about reach the ceiling boards (no photographic evidence, but lake flies make it very clear how covered your ceiling is in cobwebs!!).

Fruit, Glorious Fruit!

This month I’ve been enjoying and experimenting with some of the delicious fruits we have here in Musoma.

We have a couple of passion fruit vines in our yard, and the last two months we have had a wonderful harvest!



There are some guava trees too in the yard, and this year I tried making guava jam for the first time – yum! Definitely something to repeat!


We don’t have any banana trees in our own garden, but they are available very cheaply from the market. We were given a gift of a very large ‘branch’ of bananas and, since I was keen to make something with them other than the usual banana cake, a friend gave me a recipe for banana chutney – delicious!


Also, it looks like it’s nearly orange season again …!



When journeys don’t go to plan: lessons in Swahili, patience, and fun.

Last week I travelled to Dar es Salaam for a two-week workshop about academic writing. There is now an airline that flies to our little dirt airstrip in Musoma, so my colleague and I thought we might give it a go.

Not everything went according to plan, but I learnt a lot and had a (mostly) fun adventure in the process…

A month or so before the trip…
we successfully booked a return flight from Musoma to Dar to leave on a Sunday.

However, a couple of weeks later…
we saw on the airline website that Sunday flights no longer existed … We were pleased though, to see that on our booking, it looked like the airline planned to move our flights to the Saturday.

However, a week and a half before travelling…
our booking no longer showed any outgoing flight at all, but only our return flight for after the trip.

My colleague was able to get her ticket rebooked that same day over the ‘phone, but I was unsuccessful.

Almost every day for a week I called the airline, sent them emails, and visited the little office in town.

On Thursday, two days before leaving …
My colleague and I visited the little office for a couple of hours in the morning, and then returned again for four hours in the afternoon, and at 6pm … I got my ticket!! We were both booked on a flight to leave 4.30pm on Saturday (in less than 48 hours).

I was very thankful for my colleague who sat with me for most of the day, offering moral support and encouragement. I was rather impressed with myself that I even managed to get a little assertive in Swahili!

I was also thankful to the man in the office, who called the airline’s main office over 20 times that day, as well as sending many emails, and stayed at work much later than usual to print my ticket.


The office in town where we spent the day, and the helpful man still on the ‘phone.


On Saturday …
I received a call at noon from a colleague, saying that he had met the man from the office in town, who had told him that the flight was already delayed. Therefore the airline would arrange transport for us to go to Mwanza (a town a few hours away) to catch the flight from there. (Since our little airstrip is not lit, ‘planes cannot land there once it starts to get dark). The bus was due to leave the airport at 3pm.

At 2.30pm I heard the bus would leave at 4.45pm instead.

The bus left the airport at 5.10 pm – hoorah! We are on our way!


On our way!


It seemed rather apt that our transport (a “daladala”) had “Compromise” pasted across the windscreen!

However, we were delayed a little while by the side of the road whilst a problem with the wheel was fixed:


Praise God it was fixed in less than an hour!

We arrived in Mwanza after a few hours, about 10pm. Before going to the airport, the airline representative apologised for the delay, and kindly provided us with a meal (we were a little perplexed, but thankful for sustenance!):


Our “in-flight” meal.

We made it to the airport by 10.30pm and got our tickets!



After only 10 minutes in the airport, we made it onto the (almost empty!) ‘plane, and took off from Mwanza just after 11pm. Hoorah!


There were only 11 passengers on this flight … it felt rather bizarre!

We made it to Dar, 1.23am on Sunday morning – Praise God!


Although this was 6 hours later than we had anticipated arriving that day, it was in fact 18 hours before our original plan of arrival (when we had planned to fly on Sunday instead)!

So, although not many things went to plan on this journey, I gained helpful practice in Swahili, enjoyed getting to know a colleague better, and experienced some amusing adventures together. It was also a good lesson in patience, trusting God for provision and safety, and being able to find fun in almost any situation.

However, I do hope our return journey next weekend is not quite so eventful!

A Tasty Treat …

Here in Musoma our spring rains have arrived – hoorah! This means that the weather is much cooler (25C!) and we frequently need to wear jumpers.

Spring rains also mean something else …

Flying termite season!!!

These little guys crawl out of the ground after it rains and like to fly around for a few hours before losing their wings.


Tanzanians like to fry them up for a tasty snack! (I’ve yet to be offered one though …)

The other evening I sat on our kitchen floor, having a lot of fun, taking pictures of all the bugs landing around me! (My house-mate’s cats like to come in and out of the windows … meaning a handy entry point for flying night-time visitors).


The ants also appreciate this snack.


Yes, some land even straight on the hob, ready for frying


Not a termite, but also a frequent visitor.


The following morning …

Maybe one day I’ll be brave enough to actually try one …

Have you ever enjoyed an unusual snack?!

Celebrating the Old, Welcoming the New.

We had much to be thankful for last week here at our translation office.

We were celebrating one of the Simbiti translators, Pastor Julius Waynse, who has now completed the lengthy training to become a Translation Advisor (TA). He will still continue to work part-time as a translator for the Simbiti team, since it is a dream of his to see the publication of the New Testament in his mother tongue. But now he will also be helping and advising the translation teams for other languages. Waynse is the first Tanzanian to become a Translation Advisor here in the Mara Cluster!

The training was certainly lengthy: a certificate of study through a course in Kenya called iDelta; a Bachelor of Theology  with SATS (South Africa Theological Seminary); as well as a lot of in-house training, which will still continue as he transitions into this new role.

Praise God for Pastor Waynse’s passion and commitment in his faith and work.

There are also a number of other translators here who are currently in the middle of their training to become TAs – please pray for perseverance for them, and that God would bless them with wisdom and knowledge.

We celebrated this achievement with speeches, prayer and special cake during our morning chai break:


Another translator and the Partnership officer praying for Waynse.



The same day we also welcomed a new translator to the Kabwa team, John Kirati.

Praise God for Kirati joining our team, and please pray for him as he learns a huge amount over the coming weeks and months.

Please pray for all of our team, that we would help Kirati to feel welcomed and we would develop good relationships.


Waynse, Kirati, and Lucy, Waynse’s wife.

P.S. If you were surprised by my use of “old” in the title, it is a complement to be called an “old person” (‘Mzee’) in Tanzania!

(Thanks to my colleagues who had their cameras at the ready).

A Latin American Feast

Beware, this post may make you rather hungry!!

The learning centre here, where my house-mate and another colleague teach some of the missionary kids, are currently studying South & Central America in their geography lessons.

What better way to learn about other countries than through their foods!

Last weekend we enjoyed a veritable feast of Latin American foods from various countries, prepared by all the different households involved.


I’m always thankful for the community here, but especially when we cook up such delicious occasions as this!

Next term the learning centre will be studying Asia … yum yum yum!


The learning centre kids (plus 2 younger brothers) and their teachers.

(Thanks to Michael Nicholls for the last photo.)


The side-streets of Musoma.

Yesterday I joined a colleague on a short errand run around town. I enjoyed looking around and watching the comings and goings down some of the side-streets that we stopped in.

Some young men were enjoying the shade outside a little corner-shop:



We visited a local carpenter’s workshop:


My colleague had had a new frame for a mosquito-net made. I came here a few months ago when my house-mate had ordered some new corner shelves. You can give the carpenter a hand-drawn diagram of what you would like with some measurements, and then collect in a week or so – talk about great service!


A woman passed by carrying a sack of flour home:


(Some of you might to notice the building-site behind her and the hand-made scaffolding – I’m glad I don’t need to climb up there!)


Motorbikes are a very common mode of transport here in Musoma, known as a pikipiki in Swahili. There a numerous motorbike taxis around too (bodaboda), a cheap way to get a lift somewhere – you often see women sitting side-saddle on the back with arm-loads of groceries. This is a skill I’d like to master some day, but not quite yet …!



A minute later a small group of goats passed down the street, unaccompanied by their owner as far as I could tell! It’s very common to see goats grazing beside the road.



And lastly…:


Most often soft-drinks are bought in glass bottles here and the kids love the bottle caps – the caps from this particular beverage are especially fun to collect because of the variety of names that you can find.

You walked or you waaalked? Recording in Kabwa.

“You walked or you waaalked?” – Clearly this doesn’t make much sense in English, but in the Kabwa language the length of a vowel can make the difference between whether something was done earlier today or yesterday.

This month I have been doing some research and recording in the Kabwa language. As well as recording a basic word list (as I did last month in the Simbiti language), I have been asking questions about and recording various verbs.

There are a number of various verb forms in Kabwa that can sound very, very similar (or even identical in some cases, even to a mother-tongue speaker!).

The question is, how do we write down these very similar forms?
Does it matter if things that mean something different are written the same?
Won’t the context make it obvious what you mean?
Is it confusing to write differently words that sound the same but mean something different? (Or will this cause less confusion in the long run?)

In English we have similar spelling issues all the time:
“I read a book yesterday” vs. “I like to read books every day”
or even, “Did you read that red book about reeds that I said I’d read?”!

But back to Kabwa…

In Kabwa, there is a distinction made between whether an action was done earlier today, yesterday, or before yesterday. It is the first two of these that can sound similar; here are some examples:

(The bha- and the beginning means ‘they’ did it, and the –aa– and –iri parts make it past…)

‘They hid (yesterday)’
Kabwa: bha-aa-bhis-iri
‘They hid (earlier today)’
Kabwa: bha-bhis-iri
(The –bhis– part is the ‘root’ of the verb, here to do with to ‘hide’)

Now, with this particular example, it is possible to hear the difference between the two – hooray!
I can even prove it my using some of my favourite sound software (Praat) – I can “see” the word and even “see” the -a- vowel and work out how long it lasts! (Some might call it sad how excited I get about this … I’m not sure what I call it, but it makes me happy!)

D&E12 comparison

The area outlined in red is the -a- vowel; the top image is of the ‘yesterday’ form, the one below is the ‘earlier today’ form – can you see that the top vowel is longer?!

But now to one of the more problematic examples.

In the example above, the main part of the verb was -bhis- ‘hide’.
Problems come up though, when the main part of the verb starts with a vowel, for example –ahur- ‘choose’:

‘They chose (yesterday)’
Kabwa: bha-aa-ahur-iri
‘They chose (earlier today)’
Kabwa: bha-ahur-iri

Hmmm, if you take a look at the ‘earlier today’ form, there are two “a”s next to each other, which makes a long vowel (in the first examples, the ‘earlier today’ form had only one -a-). I was curious whether these two forms would sound different, whether the ‘yesterday’ form would have an extra-long vowel …

D&E35 comparison

Well … here the -a- vowel is almost exactly the same length. Hmmm …
According to Sasi, the Kabwa speaker I was working with, these two forms have “maana moja” – one meaning.

So… does that mean that the ‘yesterday’ and the ‘earlier today’ forms are the same when verbs begin with a vowel?
Can you not make the same distinctions as you can with other verbs that begin with a consonant?

Well, no they don’t just merge into one.
If you specify what kind of thing they chose, then you can hear the difference!

‘They chose it (yesterday)’
Kabwa: bha-aa-yi-ahur-iri
‘They chose it (earlier today)’
Kabwa: bha-yi-ahur-iri
(The –yi– part is the ‘it’, for example a chicken)

In both examples, the -yi- ‘it’ splits up the -a- vowels. This means that you can tell that the ‘yesterday’ form has a long -a- before the ‘it’, and the ‘earlier today’ form has only a short vowel before the ‘it’!

D&E37 comparison

The two red boxed sections are the -a- vowels either side of the -yi-.

It is clearly visible that the top example has two long -a- vowels either side of the -yi-, whereas the lower example has a very short -a- before the -yi- but a longer -a- afterwards.

Hooray! So it is possible differentiate between the two, even when the verb starts with a vowel!

The problem still remains as to the example above that you can’t differentiate.
Do we write it differently so that the difference is obvious when it is written, even though it sounds the same? Or do we write it the same because it sounds the same and risk some confusion? Which will cause Kabwa speakers less confusion when they are learning to read and write Kabwa?

Well, I don’t have all the answers! But fortunately I’m not working on my own. There are other linguists here with whom I can discuss these things, as well as two Kabwa translators and many Kabwa speakers nearby whom I can ask when I have more questions.

Now I should get back to listening to all the sound files at my desk, which is covered with rather a lot of papers as you can see!


(And congratulations if you made it all the way through this post!)


Recording in Simbiti – words, words, words!

Last week I spent a few days working with a man called Julius, to record a basic word-list is his mother-tongue, Simbiti.

We used a 51-page list of Simbiti words which had been collected and written down a number of years ago, but never recorded.

First Julius and I checked through 2 pages at a time, making sure he agreed with how the Simbiti word was written down, but also checking that it had been given the correct Swahili translation.

Finding a correct translation was quite difficult at times. One word we discussed was ‘ukusiighiitya’, which means to rub something lightly. However Julius was not happy with the Swahili words given; one ‘kuchua’ means to rub roughly or to chafe, and the other ‘kusugua’ means to clean something by rubbing or to scrub. Julius therefore asked me what the English word given was, and I apologetically explained that it was simply ‘to rub’! We didn’t manage to come up with a suitable Swahili translation; I’m still thinking on it.

We also had fun discussing a number of words to do with blowing:

  • ‘ukuhuuta’ means simply ‘to blow’.
  • ‘ukughwesya’ means ‘to blow something causing it to fall or drop’ (which Julius explained was different to ‘to blow something down’ – ‘ukuhuuta keghwe hanse’).
  • ‘okohaanyora’ describes the wind blowing the thatch of a roof.


After checking through two pages, we then recorded those words; Julius repeated each word 2 or 3 times each.

We did the recording in our little recording studio here at the office. There’s a main room with a desk, where I sat with my laptop and recording equipment. Julius sat in the next-door room, which is very well insulated against outside noises. There were some small holes in the connecting wall, through which I threaded the wires from his microphone to my recorder!



So now we have over 1800 words recorded in the Simbiti language! This is really helpful for us when we are analysing the sounds in the language. It is also helpful for other linguists who are interested in the languages here.

(Now all that remains is for me to cut and edit the sound files … so far I’m 6 pages down!)


I thank God for willing, friendly, helpful people like Julius who are passionate about their languages.

Aren’t languages amazing in their variety?! How wonderful of God to create us with some of his creativity and innovation in us!