Uganda has a huge number of local languages – I’ve read or been told about anything from 30 to 50 different ones, the most widely spoken of which is Luganda. However, the official language is English, which is spoken to varying degrees by most educated Ugandans.
This can lull the unsuspecting English-speaking visitor into a false sense of security. During our football coaching or classroom lessons, the question, “Do you understand?” is almost always met with a resounding, “Yes!”. However, it soon becomes evident that this isn’t the case…in fact, if you ask the same question in the local language Rukiga (“Wa chenga?”), the response tends to be a lot more accurate.
The same happens with the question, “How are you?”. First of all, it is most easily understood if you put on an African accent. Secondly, the response is without exception, “I am fine”. One of my Ugandan friends, Frank, summed this up succinctly by saying that even if someone was two minutes from death, when asked how they were feeling they would still respond in this way. Curiously, it’s also commonly heard in reply to other questions such as, “What is your name?” and “How old are you?”.
Even children who speak good English have an unusual turn of phrase. In our coaching sessions, for example during relay races, you can often hear the children arguing as to whose turn it is. Instead of saying, “It’s my go!”, they shout, “I am the one!”. Unfortunately this has the side-effect of ensuring the Chesney Hawkes classic (!) ‘I am the one and only’ gets stuck in my head for the rest of the session.
One feature of Ugandan English is speaking in unnecessary questions which the speaker then immediately answers him/herself:
“I am teaching the what? The children.”
“I am eating the what? The food.”
The most noticeable aspect of the English spoken in this part of Africa, apart of course from the different accent, is the interchangeabililty of ‘l’s and ‘r’s. There seems to be no rhyme nor reason as to when or why this occurs. For example, on speaking with a friend (who speaks excellent English) about Idi Amin, she described him as a ‘tylant’ and described the ‘rooting’ that took place in the villages. A boy in one of our classes is called Hillary, on paper one of the easier names to pronounce until he tells you that he is ‘Hirraly’.
One of the more uncomfortable moments came when being introduced to a teacher named Blessed. It was not said with two syllables as in ‘Bless-ed’ so rhymed with chest. Slightly awkwardly, it was also pronounced like a synonym for chest too. You can imagine our surprise when we heard the headmaster say:
“This is Teacher Breast.”