I ride up to Arimiyaw’s shop, jump off my bike and take off my helmet. I proudly greet him “Antire”, and “Na tuma?” both which warrant a “Naaa” and a smile. I am feeling pretty great, having conquered the 6 or so central greetings that have earned me glowing praise from my coworkers and street cred with the people that greet me in town every day.
As I retell my family’s glee as I ask them about their day, and respond correctly to their inquiries, Arimiyaw’s head tilts and his smile tilts, and I ask, “What?”. He says “Nothing” but I push, as I am in the habit of doing, and re-iterate that I’m excited that I’ve finally learned all the greetings. And he yields “Ah, but you do not know all of the greetings. How do you greet someone at a funeral, when someone has just died?”. I scrunch up my face, puzzling for a second, and as I do a few of Arimiyaw’s friends walk in and I am treated to some hopelessly fast conversation apparently about football, school plans, and a number of other things. As I am leaving his shop to ride home for the day, I mention “Wow, I barely understood any words or what you were saying, with your friends”. Which warrants the reply, “Well, you only know the greetings, and nothing else”.
Ouch. While I know I’ve made some progression in other areas over the past two weeks, this indictment from a friend makes me re-evaluate my pride over these good, but relatively feeble inroads, mere paths through a complex language that I have barely begun to learn. As I ride home in the gathering dusk, I think about my next strategies for piecing together a more robust ability to communicate beyond the admittedly weak “How are you” that is my current standard.