JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – Like many alien invaders of South Africa, I was more than a little intimidated by the thought of trying to learn Zulu, the dominant African language here. It’s those clicking sounds one has to make in order for people to understand what you are trying to say. But at heart, I am an optimist. If nature intended a Frenchman to say “foie gras,” then there’s no reason a Texan like myself can’t learn Zulu. Who says white men can’t click? Yes, we can!
My guide was a personal trainer at the gym whose name is Glad. Every morning, I would meet Glad at the door with a handshake and the customary greeting, “Sawubona. Unjani? Ngikhona.” (Good morning. How are you? I am fine.) This was accompanied by a complex series of handshakes involving thumbs.
But one day, when he could see I was sincere about learning Zulu, Glad led me into the inner sanctum of clicks. Like a karate dojo, he gave me one difficult word each week for me to practice and to use. The first was uncedile, which means “you have helped me.” The “c” click in Zulu is made with your tongue just behind the top front teeth, you suck your teeth to make a tsk, tsk, tsk sound.
Next week, Glad taught me another word, nqedile, which he said meant “It is finished.” To my ears, this sounded exactly like the word from last week, but the difference was the click. The “q” click is the popping sound of a bottle cork. You make it by putting your tongue all the way back on the roof of your mouth. It was many weeks before I was finished learning nqedile.
For some reason, the “x” click didn’t bother me. That’s the sound you make, out of the side of your cheek, when you are trying to get your horse to move faster. (It’s a Texan thing.)
I would like to report that over the past few months, I have since become both svelte and fluent, that I can order a fried inhlanzi (fish) at a restaurant, inquire about the health of your gogo (grandmother), and find out the rate of a Soweto taxi (taxi). Alas, that is not the case.
But the mere step of learning a few words has enriched me, put smiles on the faces of the people I practice my Zulu on, and opened a window into a part of South Africa that remains closed for all too many.