Most Useful Languages for Rugged East Africa Travel?
Replies: 6 - Last Post: Jul 20, 2012 3:47 PM Last Post By: Viriya
Jul 16, 2012 12:53 PM
Most Useful Languages for Rugged East Africa Travel?Hey guys, any insight is appreciated.
I may be traveling from South Africa, up the eastern coast (including Madagascar) to at least northern Ethiopia. I've done my research and am well aware that multiple dialects and languages are spoken throughout this huge region. However, which language(s), beyond English, would have the most practical application for traveling? I'm usually the person who will be traveling "off the beaten path," so I'm planning on a bit of (multiple) language preparation to enhance that kind of trip. I've done it successfully in the past with Hebrew and Spanish.
From Wikipedia's Languages of Africa:
Besides the former colonial languages of English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, the following languages are official at the national level in East Africa:
Swazi in Swaziland and South Africa
Malagasy in Madagascar
Amharic in Ethiopia
Swahili in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda
Somali in Somalia and Djibouti
Chichewa in Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique
(and so on...)
Lastly, I'm curious about how prevalent literacy is in the more rural areas. As a safety measure, there may be some utility in writing several different phrases and scenarios in the local dialect (from a multi-linguist there) and then showing it to the locals as backup.
Jul 16, 2012 4:56 PM
1If it's Sath Efrica to northern Ethiopia, the most widely useful language will be English. Portuguese is the national language of Mozambique and you'll need French in Madagascar (and the Comoros, if your travels take you there).
Of course don't expect automatic fluency in any of these languages with every local person you encounter. Incidentally, Tanzanians - as a general rule - are less likely to speak English well compared with Kenyans and Ugandans
Literacy levels are higher in cities than in rural areas, but if you approach adults, especially young adults, who are well dressed by local standards, you stand a better chance of being able to use the written word. Literacy rates tend to be higher among males than females, although this is not always guaranteed.
But keep in mind that educated people were very likely educated mostly in the relevant national language - ENG, FRE or POR - so they may not be used to seeing local dialects in writing (many of them lack standardized spelling, for example). So if you really do need to have anything in writing, you'd be better off sticking to the big official languages, the ones that any literate local should be able to deal with.
Also, remember two things:
Map-reading is not a strong point with many Africans.
And if you approach a stranger for information or directions, always start with a greeting. Don't just launch straight into your question. It's usually considered very rude to do so.
Jul 16, 2012 5:08 PM
2One more thing just came back to me. You may be exaggerating in your own mind the difficulty of communicating in a western language. Consider this:
In African countries where many tribal languages and dialects are spoken, like Uganda and Mozambique, a northerner and a southerner would most likely have no language in common except for ENG or POR. So they would be the languages used if a northerner had to deal with a southerner and vice-versa. These languages (as well as FRE in many African countries) act as vehicles of communication domestically as well as internationally. So I wouldn't sweat too much over compiling lists of phrases and scenarios which have only limited applicability.
By the way, you mentioned Somalia in your OP. Are you serious about heading there?
Jul 17, 2012 6:34 AM
3As #1 says, English will be the most useful, and you will need French for Mad and Portuguese for Moz.
Additionally, Swahili is a lingua franca in much of East Africa, and a bit of Swahili might take you a long way in the region you can see indicated here. Supposed to be fairly straightforward to pick up some basic Swahili. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swahili_language
In Ethiopia, Amharic is the lingua franca, though people who deal with foreigners will have some English, as very few foreigners have any Amharic. Unfortunately Amharic is a rather difficult language with a rather tricky writing system so it takes quite a lot of effort to get much out of it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amharic_language
I believe it is reasonably feasible for the tourist to visit Somaliland, the self-governing territory, not recognised as an independent state but in effect one, whose main town is Hargeisa. Other parts of course you'd be quite mad to go anywhere near.
Jul 17, 2012 7:51 AM
Jul 17, 2012 10:33 PM
5I was a student at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania studying Swahili and African Studies a few years back. During that time, I also travelled to Zanzibar, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Uganda. As far as Tanzania goes, some basic Swahili is immensely helpful. If you are in Dar or Arusha, the cab drivers, safari guides, and people working in the tourist trade will all have at least minimal English. There are also many university students living in the city and although the national language is Swahili, the students have to speak English in school, from high school through university. So, you should be able to find people in the city or at tourist spots to help you even if you can't speak a word of KS. The rural areas are another matter entirely, and you will find that English speakers are much more rare. The good news, is that Swahili is a very easy language to pick up, and Tanzanians along with other East and Central Africans who speak it, are typically delighted when you put forth the effort to converse in their native tongue. I believe Lonely Planet actually has a phrase book for Swahili and I would recommend that. You don't need to go crazy and buy Rosetta Stone (which by the way is not a great Swahili program). You will likely find that all you need to do is memorize a handful of the most important words and phrases, and you will use them repeatedly while immersed with average Tanzanians.
In Kenya, Swahili isn't spoken nearly as much. In places like Nairobi and Mombasa you will hear English ring out alongside Swahili. I took two trips to Kenya and English was all I used. I wouldn't worry too much about this one.
In Uganda, Swahili can also be useful, but more so in the southern part of the country and in the capital. If you are visiting Kampala you will have no problem simply speaking English. As a side note, since you mentioned that you plan to go off the beaten path, I hope you are aware of the horrific situation in northern Uganda and will steer clear. Although the there has been relative peace since 2007, people are still living in internally displaced persons camps, and are dealing with all kinds of severe trauma. The reason I mention this, is because I have heard several acquaintances say they were traveling to Gulu (the epicenter) as tourists, basically to just gawk at war survivors, former child soldiers, and the aid agencies seeking to help them. Unless you have been invited in and have a very necessary skill, I think all travelers to Uganda should respect the privacy of Acholi people. Just my two cents on that issue.
As for Ethiopia, I would echo another commenter and note that Amharic is super tough to learn. You will also see Ge'ez everywhere, which is the Ethiopian writing system. Fortunately, in the city there are also many signs in English. In Addis the English speakers are not plentiful, but you should be able to get by. As in other countries, cab drivers should speak at least minimal English. However, you may have to get creative in certain situations. I found myself pantomiming what I wanted for lunch, at one establishment. I didn't leave the capital because I was only there for a week, but I can imagine that the major tourist attractions such as the rock hewn Church of Saint George which is way out in Lalibela, have guides who speak English. If you are planning to stray from Addis Ababa be advised that there are about 90 languages spoken throughout the country, and Amharic is not widely recognized in many areas.
I haven't been to Somalia, Somaliland or Djibouti but I have worked extensively with refugees from those countries. Because I was working with new arrivals who didn't speak a word of English, I thought it might be nice to learn some Somali. Like Amharic, Somali is seriously, seriously hard. I bought a book and cassette tapes that are a bit out of date, online---no one seems to have made a Somali language learning program in quite some time. Anyway, I worked with the tapes but it was brutal. I'm really not sure what to tell you here. If you speak some French that could definitely serve you well in Djibouti.
I don't know what to tell you about the Southern African countries on your list, as I have no personal experience there. However, as I have said above, you will be surprised how far English can get you.
As for literacy rates in rural areas, these vary widely by country. Somalia has an extremely low literacy rate, especially for women, at 25.8 %. Conversely, in Uganda the female literacy rate is 57.7%. Instead of simply relying on writing down phrases in different dialects to show to the locals, you might want to buy a picture map. A picture map for travelers is a laminated fold-out card with all sorts of pictures you can point to specifying what you need. For example, there is a picture of a toilet, someone who is sick, a bus station, etc. It's a good investment if you will be out in the middle of nowhere among people who are more likely to be illiterate and who speak a different language than you.
I hope all of this was helpful. It sounds like you have an epic trip planned! If I were going as well, I would definitely urge you to include Rwanda and Zanzibar. They are each stunning and eye-opening in very different ways and should not be missed on a tour like this.
Jul 20, 2012 3:47 PM
6Thank you all kindly for the responses, they were all very helpful. I'll take note of the "picture book" suggestion, and will begin researching resources for general introductions and basic phrases (e.g. Swahili). And thanks to the poster about mentioning the sensitive situation in parts of Uganda.
English, as I suspected, will be predominantly useful. I intend to polish up on my French in any case, and I believe I will have a longer stint in Madagascar. I am particularly interested in crafting a boat trip there with fishermen or merchants from a Mozambique port. It seems adventurous, but not entirely unfeasible.
Regarding travel to Somalia: I just listed the country as a reference point for the language diversity. Practically, I probably won't be able to travel there due to obvious restrictions. I suppose it's possible to hire private guides, porters, and/or security, but such measures are well beyond my budget and personal interests. The Somalis I have met as refugees abroad were always very warm people, so it's a bit of a shame that the political situation hampers independent travel (and of course the livelihood of the Somalis).
I'll update late if anyone is interested.
Thanks again, guys.
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