This week, I got home to a voicemail message from Bill's mom Dawami - the first, of dozens I've gotten over the past five months, entirely in English.
"OK Mahree!" she began, "How are you? You OK? Long time!"
From the beginning, our phone communications have been comedies of errors. Of the first voicemail she left me in August, I could make out
only "Dawami," "OK," "bye," and some breathing at the end when she seemed uncertain whether to hang up. Then, for months, she left long,
chatty messages in Swahili of which I could understand only stray words: "habari" (Hello), "MamaBilly."
I'd call back armed with a Swahili phrasebook, and try out pleasantries: How are you? What are you doing?
She'd try to teach me new phrases: "Mukawati fasa" (Where are you now?), "Nafoma kitavo" (I'm reading a book.) Clumsily, we'd check on each other's families and arrange our next meeting.
When it was time to go, the real dance began. None of the cues I knew for ending a phone conversation seemed to work, and we were both too polite, or afraid of making the wrong move, to do anything abrupt.
"OK," I'd say suggestively, my voice rising.
"OK," she'd answer.
"Well ..." I'd begin, and trail off.
"Well ... OK," she'd embellish helpfully.
One day, we spent a solid three minutes trading thank yous, you're welcomes, goodbyes, and see you laters in both languages. As we finally hung up, I heard her giggling.
Meantime, she's been struggling hard to learn English. Several prospective employers have told her they won't hire her until she's more fluent. She pores over the English and Swahili translations of all her Jehovah's Witness literature, trying to make connections. Every morning, she watches the full lineup of PBS children's programming, playing all the phonics games designed for preschoolers.
Four months later, her message welcoming me home is choppy, but confident. "I miss you!" she says. Then she adds a new sentence to our phone repertoire: "If you get my message, call me please. Thank you." And, after a pause, she adds, with mischief in her voice: "Tell hi your husband."