Spring 2021 Issue

Lingua Franca

How do you take a seed
That sprouted in foreign soil
That laid its roots walking across oceans
Whose leaves first breathed Western winds
How do you take it
To its lovers’ land of origin
And tell it to stay put.
How do you explain to it that
“Home” will be good for it
When you’re not quite sure that “home” is good for you
And expect it to bear fruit
– oh, wait:

Try learning a sixth language when that language is so closely related to your mother tongue.
You would think it would make it oh so easy, but no: the proximity of ancestry means
the language barrier is more like
a chain-link fence.
About 75% registers; the remaining 25% is you sticking your hands through said fence,
offering up conjugations in your own tongue,
garnering quizzical looks in response because your face betrays your blood.
Because you look like you should be from here.
“But then how come you can’t… What tribe are you?”
Chew, swallow, and repeat.

Try explaining to a plumber, in a language you don’t really speak (yet),what exactly befell the tap that
broke off your shower wall at 11 p.m. the night before. Over the phone, no less. No amount of
gesticulating will help you, my friend.
Yet, he’s somehow able to understand enough – even to figure out the directions to your house. On his
arrival, meet him at the gate and gesture some more; “Follow me, enter here, this way please…”

In the sheer frustration of trying to figure out how much he said the new parts would cost, ask
“Do you speak Swahili?”
And dissolve into joy when he says he’s actually from Tanzania, and not only that, he’s from where your
people are from, meaning you have two whole languages in common
When you were stumbling over one.

Okay! Let’s get to work. So, how much do these pipes cost?

Relief is discovering that the laundry lady,
whom you’ve been smiling at every Tuesday, stopping at “Good morning, Mama Francine” – which is a damn
shame because she has such a bright smile with laugh lines whose origins you’re curious about – who is always so
graciously amused when you call to say that her pay is ready, mangling the language,
but it’s okay because when money speaks Babel falls,
relief is discovering that she, in fact,
in her younger youth,
acquired one of your tongues
and for that, you feel a little bit more welcome in this foreign familiar place.
And then you learn, under circumstances that forced you to re-evaluate your discomfiture towards hired
domestic help,
That you and her share the experience of being strangers in your homelands
(yes, they’re my homelands too, because we were all cousins before the white man drew a line)
The morning that she recounted over tea and bread how her neighbor asked for a favor during a market run
But she brought home the wrong item because of a twist in the tongues
A double-entendre if you will,
Your eyes widen in recognition – and incredulity because you’d never have guessed.
That that was eight years ago,  and now she’s no longer new
And soon, you will no longer be new, too.

Sylvia Ilahuka

Sylvia K. Ilahuka is a Tanzanian writer and model based in Uganda. Her work has appeared in the literary journal Lolwe, and more can be read on her personal blog Ntuntunu. Since penning this piece, the Luganda language has begun building a home on her tongue.

Follow us