Learning Dholuo

A new language is always opaque in the beginning. Other people are speaking, and you understand nothing, but clearly they are communicating. You hear emotion, and laughing, and information being exchanged, but none of it is for you. You listen, and occasionally you even hear a word that sounds familiar. But no, that cannot be—it is just a word that sounds like a Spanish word you once knew. Or a Khiswahili word you recognize from those first e-mails you got from other ex-pats: jambo, or asante.

So it is with this Dholuo, the language of the people here on the southern shores of Lake Victoria. Everyone here speaks it, and they avoid speaking Khiswahili. They have to learn Swahili in school, but if they can’t speak “mother tongue”, they would rather speak English.

The first challenge is pronunciation. I am having a difficult time wrapping my tongue around so many vowels in a row. The sounds of “w” and “y”, distinct from “u”, all run together in my mouth. To give each vowel its distinct sound, to avoid blending them, requires unnatural concentration. For example, to say “Good morning” is one word, “Oyawore”, but it is like 5 parts, with just the tiniest bit of slurring together: o-ya-w-o-ray.

I learned to count to ten, and then one hundred, fairly quickly. However, when we came to the lesson on telling time I met my second challenge. In Dholuo, one describes the time when the hour hand points to two, as 8 hours. Six o’clock is described with the word for 12. And so on: three o’clock is 9 hours (actually, hours nine), eleven o’clock uses the word for five. Adding minutes is fairly easy in that you just add the minutes that have elapsed, but first you insert the phrase “gi dakika” to mean with minutes. (Oh, and dakika is a borrowed word from Swahili.) But you only add minutes for the first half of the clock—I mean the time from 12:00 to 6:00—is it still the first half if the left side of the clock goes from 12, through 1-2-3 to 6? This makes my brain hurt. I have written down how you describe the left half of the clock, but it has not yet sunk in. Suffice it to say it is different than the right half.

The third challenge I just got yesterday. It turns out that a noun may not be a nice, stable word as most are in English. I mean yeah, we add an “s”, or an “es” to make it plural, sometimes we change a spelling or pronunciation from male to female, and there are all those irregular plurals like feet from foot. In Dholuo, the word “stomach”, or “ich”, becomes iya for my stomach, iyi for your stomach, iye for his or her stomach, iwa for our stomach, iwu for your (plural) stomach, and igi for their stomach! I was thinking I was learning possessive pronouns, but it was all different stomachs. And yes, this makes my stomach ache.

Perhaps these differences in language set me up to misunderstand my tutor. Surely it is not just the clock or the time that we look at with entirely different perspectives?

Sadly, learning Dholuo will not help my French! Que lastima! (Oops, learning Spanish obviously didn’t help my French, either.)

Sunset over Lake Victoria

So fortunate to have this view, looking west out of the expat part of the compound here. This is every night around 6:30 pm–it gets dark early here at the equator. And for the last few days, we have had some hippo sightings at the beach. Tonight had quite a serenade at about 7, just as I was in the shower and could not go and look. And the other day when I was able to see my first hippo grazing on the water plants, I did not have my phone. I will be sure to share if I manage to get a picture!IMG_1742

More Grass Roof

When last we saw the roof, most of the old grass had been removed.

Junior, in front of the house now stripped of all the grass on the roof.


Now, after repairing the bamboo framing and tying on new pieces where needed, with locally made, locally grown sisal rope, some of the old grass bundles are firmly tied on as the base layer:



Building a grass roof
View of the first layer from under the eaves.


Matoso Center

Just out of the picture on the right is the location of the Lalmba Matoso Dispensary. On a map, we are on the shore of Lake Victoria, west and a little bit north of Migori, the county seat. We are even farther north and farther west of Nairobi, the capital city. Across the lake, directly west, is Uganda. To the left, south a few miles, is the border with Tanzania.

Grass Roof


I can’t remember the name of this type of house, but it is much cooler than the increasingly common steel roofed structures. The grass roof breaks down, however, and one must employ a specialist who knows how to make the roof repairs. The house here in the Expat housing area is being re-done, and I am trying to follow the deconstruction and repair. You will be able to see it too, if I get my camera/photo downloading problem fixed. Today I will put up some of what I have so far.

New roofing
Large bundles of much wider, longer grass began to appear on the grounds in preparation for the repair
Roofing Material
Long bamboo poles also appeared prior to the repair work on the house. These are not big enough to be upright supports, so I am not yet sure how they will be used. The tool whose handle you see looks like an old file with a homemade handle.


Roofing material
The first layer, around the bottom, are unique-looking bundles that have been trimmed into this shape, and are saved.
Several layers of grass are off and we see the dirty sloping roof supports and the bamboo cross-bars with some damage.
Several layers off, showing complete loss of some of the lower bamboo cross bars.
The fundi hams it up for the camera.


The Cookhouse and the Cook

Joyce, Manager of the Lalmba Cookhouse.

and center of my life!IMG_1707

Note, eggs are not refrigerated here. They are so fresh they seem to last for weeks safely.
Rainwater Tank
Rainwater is saved in multiple places in the compound, and carried to where it is needed. The “running water” is pumped directly from the lake.
Rainwater collection
Showing the large, at least 6 inch gutters for collecting rainwater from the steel roof.
Some of the interior showing construction of the roof. There is no ceiling, but I think a request for a quote is out, to see if it is feasible to add ceilings to the expat housing and cookhouse. Ceilings seem to reduce the heat that otherwise just radiates inward during the day from the steel roof.
More ceiling here. The spiral around the center upright of the truss is not part of the construction, but I think it is leftover decoration. The top of the pantry door shows behind the kitchen area.
All cooking takes place here on the three burners. Joyce can even bake cookies and cakes on the stove top. She is amazing!

Tech Trouble on the Blog


A friend set up my computer so that photos from my phone automatically were saved to the “camera roll” anytime my phone was plugged in. It has been great—no struggling to send huge files by e-mail, and I had worked out how to find them and add them to my blog.

A day or two ago I installed Dropbox on this computer for the first time, and it seems to have changed everything. Now I cannot find my latest pictures. I looked at my device settings, and just now at my Dropbox settings and adjusted a few things. Wish me luck, or this will be a very visually boring blog!

Secondary School, Kenya

A Model Classroom
At the Maine Normal School, 1917.
These pictures are separated by 100 years, and ocean and an entire continent, and I think the African school kids are still getting the short end of the stick. This first classroom has to hold up to 80 middle school students and there are really no supplies other than these very basic desks which hold two or three or four students. How do you think that works, crowding seventh grade boys together on one shared desk? And don’t forget–only one teacher. Primary school is “free” from the government, but anyone who can sends their kids somewhere they can at least be in a smaller classroom. And even in the free school through 8th grade, parents must pay for paper, pencils, and school uniforms. There is no reliable electricity, and no computers. I think the textbooks must be handed out when needed, because the kids are not carrying around heavy backpacks, and there was no sign of books in any of the classrooms I saw.

Cookies: baking on the equator

The solar oven is bulky but does a really good job. And, it does not heat up the cook house!

The finished product here is delicious–flavor added with lime zest.

Mom, Joyce the cook especially wanted you to see how she bakes me cookies. And today, she baked bread and made granola in the oven.