A Stranger In A Strange Land


I landed safely at Mwanza Airport on Sunday and have been here now for five days. This is a beautiful and broken country, hot and noisy and welcoming and full of wonderful people who are trapped in social, political, and economic circumstances far beyond their control. I’m discovering that the things I’m going to learn here are perhaps less about the medicine than they are about the things I’m told by the people I’ve met, and about changing the way I look at the world and the things that we take so very much for granted in the UK.

On my first night, I sat on the porch and looked out at Lake Victoria and still couldn’t quite believe that I’d actually got on the flight. It had been just a plan for so long, and just an idea for even longer before that. It felt a bit like a fantasy, in the sense that part of me didn’t believe it would ever really happen. Now that I’m here, it is in some ways nothing like what I expected but I’m so glad and so grateful that I came.

A chunk of this first week has been taken up with trying to learn how to communicate.

My appalling Swahili is the source of much amusement amongst the Work The World staff and the staff at the hospital. On Monday, I had just about mastered “Hujambo!” (informal greeting) and “Asante sana,” (thank you very much), which meant that the middle parts of conversations were all a complete blur. My programme manager thought that it was very funny that I had learned the word for “no”, but not the word for “yes”. It seemed more important, I had a vague understanding of when people were asking me if I spoke Swahili and I felt that I should be able to say, “Hapana,” and confess my total ignorance before they went off into a whole spiel and left me looking blank. On my first day in the hospital, I was sitting outside and a woman noticed the scrubs and lab coat and came over to me and, I think, started asking advice about her sore arm. I didn’t know how to say, “I don’t understand,” in Swahili, and every time I said it in English she repeated the whole story. Eventually, I ended up saying, “Hapana kiSwahili,” slamming together these two words that make no grammatical sense and destroying this gorgeous language. I think she understood that. At least, she went off in the direction of A&E, where there was hopefully someone who could help her.

Now, I’ve progressed to knowing the correct response to “How are you?” — I was taught that by a security guard at one of the banks in downtown Mwanza, when he realised that my small talk ran out after “Hujambo!”. I don’t always understand the question, though, which can be awkward.

And I tend to remember the important words and forget the little ones that you need to actually make a sentence. I spent most of Tuesday introducing myself to nurses as, “Elizabeth, daktaria mwanafunzi, Uingereza.” (Elizabeth, student doctor, England.) I forget the things like, “My name is…” and “I am a…” and “I am from…” I don’t know the Swahili word for Scotland, either, and it seems easier to just say that I’m from England.

I’ll blog again when I can, but for now the sun is shining, it’s barbecue night at the house, and it’s time to go home for some chakula.




  1. Heee!
    Well, you can’t be doing any worse than I did when I first came to Scotland and couldn’t understand a soul. That only lasted for the first day or so… except with the cab drivers. There are STILL some days…

    I agree: you already know medicine. What you’re going to learn is people. Savor the adventure.

  2. Yay! Glad to hear you’ve made it there safely, and seem to be having fun.

    I’m guessing by now you’ve learnt the Swahili for another essential – coffee :-)

  3. So, the question is, will you be there long enough to develop a working knowledge of the language? Or just enough to convince people to give you directions & to start speaking to you in English?

    Glad you made it there and that you’re settling in. Look forward to hearing more of your adventures!

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