The other morning Kristi and I found ourselves in a lively conversation in the doorway of our apartment with Isaac, one of the guards, and Susan, who cleans all the apartments on our floor. What was striking about this conversation is that most of it was in Juba Arabic**. It began with the basic greetings that we have been learning, but quickly shifted to new vocabulary as Isaac and Susan saw pictures of our families on the wall mounting and began pointing fingers and asking questions. We quickly learned the word for father, “abuu,” mother, “uma,” and sister, “okut.” Susan pointed to Kristi in one picture from 8 years ago, and I responded, practicing in Arabic, “My wife.” “You have two wives??”, Susan exclaimed, and we laughed and assured her that no, it was really Kristi in the picture. We then learned that Susan was one of three wives, and has 10 children.
Later that morning a colleague asked Isaac, “So are you now speaking Arabic with Bob and Kristi?” While our Arabic is still quite limited, we are making a little bit of progress each day. Yesterday I was literally overjoyed when I figured out, after she had just left, what Susan had asked me – “Ita rija kalaas?” (meaning, “You have returned?”). I just about jumped off the couch and shouted when I realized she had introduced the verb “return” and the perfect tense which ends with the word “kalaas.”
While learning vocabulary and grammar can certainly be an arduous affair, it can also be fun as it connects us to the people we have come to live amongst and serve. In so many ways language is about connecting with people. Even as we go down to the small shops along the way to buy this and that, if we can greet folks and say a few things in their language, it builds instant rapport. While many people here speak some English and we can technically “get by” with English in our respective work roles, the Arab influence in South Sudan is still quite strong, so learning Arabic will help us build relationships with those we rub shoulders with everyday and strengthen relationships with colleagues. It also helps us as we travel around the city and shop.
While we served in Congo, we had no choice but to learn the language of the people. Learning and speaking Tshiluba and then French built a permanent bond. We hope that a similar phenomenon can happen here. Having learned Tshiluba and French gives us confidence in learning a new language, Juba Arabic. Of course many African tribal languages are spoken here also – Anywaa, Madi, Bari, Shilluk, Dinka and Nuer to name just a few. Sadly, it will be impossible to learn all the mother tongues of folks we will grow to love, but hopefully we can learn a few greetings and phrases from these languages as well, showing an interest in them as valued persons with deep roots in this place. So, with all that sharing about language, we close with the familiar Arabic blessing, “Salaam alekum.” May God grant you peace.
**The localized form of Arabic in South Sudan is colloquially called “Juba Arabic” – a pidgin form of Classical Arabic.