Friday, August 11, 2017

Our hero Simbu and managing foreign languages



Freddy Macha

Freddy Macha 

First to salute Alphonce Simbu.

“We are very happy...”

He said of Tanzanians.

The London declaration last Sunday after having clinched a bronze medal at the Olympic Stadium in London was uplifting. Five years ago, I met and interviewed our Olympic 2012 hopefuls such as boxer Selemani Kidunda and their hardworking, optimistic coaches. All, including the legendary multiple medallist Filbert Bayi (part of the team), were being condemned for not winning anything.

They all expressed similar views.

Given the necessary support, we too can win...

Hey, what is so different between us and fellow East African athletes? We share matching, corresponding mountainous terrain, culture and physical attributes.

Another 2012 opinion was how a single athlete can alter perspective. Unlike football, where we need 11 players, in track and field, one soul may jog a whole nation to heavens. And subsequently, the little known Alphonce Simbu this week became the talk of London, apple and mango of Tanzanian pride.

Let us pat his back, check what made him triumph and capitalise on it. 2020 Tokyo Olympics, here we come. Roaring!

That said, let us spot some minor detail.

As significant as wining these international championships. Nowadays the media resembles water and air. Everything one does, flows. Goes viral. Fast. On Sunday unfortunately I did not make it to the Olympic Stadium. Yet within seconds of Simbu winning third position, I was already aware through live images on my phone.

Shortly afterwards, our hero faced the global, enchanted media. Behind him beamed brands of sponsors. Huge companies. “The Money”, to paraphrase American boxer Floyd Mayweather. Toyota. TDK. Seiko. Asics. TBS. By his side, a female Ethiopian athlete opened a bottle of water with her teeth. African style. As soon as the 1.34 clip rolled you hear a reporter shooting.

“Were you at all kind of intimidated... mixing with all the guys at the front of the race today?”

Eyes and cameras zoom on Simbu. Simbu. Tanzania. Instead of a quick reply. Silence. Hesitation.

Alphonce Simbu: “Ah, I don’t get you...”

Reporter reproduces query. Had I been Simbu I would do the same. I am the star conqueror, here. You need to make your question clear. Journalist re-loaded.

“Is there any fear of you going with the best marathoners from Ethiopia and Kenya and getting on the medal podium alongside them?”

I sympathise with the second hesitation.

What the hell is “podium”?

Why fear? Pass me a dictionary, fellow citizens!

Listen. Our superstar had not understood anything. Someone translates the question.

Waking up, a recharged Simbu:

“I am very happy, because you know it is a long time we Tanzania did not get any medals. We miss medals in many, many raceses like the Beijing championships and...the Olympics...we miss again. So today we got a bronze medal...so WE are very happy. Even me. And I think... all the Tanzanian peoples are very happy because of this medal....So I feel good. We know that always the Kenyan and the Ethiopians always are win. So I am very happy today...”

Grammatically incorrect. But who cares? This is a winner. We always watch international footballers and their managers speaking terrible English, but so what? Can these journalists speak Swahili?

Yet not an excuse.

We need to coach our athletes not only how to speak, but converse properly. It raises their profile and status of where they hail from. I remember in the late 1980s I used to like the way the German teenage tennis champion, Boris Becker, used to talk to the press. Or racing driver, Ayton Serna from Brazil, where English is hardly spoken.

English, however, is Tanzania’s second official language. Taught and used everywhere. Right now, you are reading one of our major newspapers in English. Our close neighbours continually tease us for not managing the English language. “Stick to your Swahili,” they joke.

Watch out!

We are not the only bilingual nation in the world. Canadians have French and English. Middle Easterners? Arabic plus French (Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, etc) or English (Egypt, Libya, Syria etc). So what is our problem? We are not unique. There are many theories. One of mine? One. The rise and rise of Swanglish. Elites including our political leaders speaking Swahili and throwing in a few English words. For that they seem intelligent and articulate. Misleading. Big time. We need to speak ANY language properly.

It is not only a Tanzanian issue.

At the beginning of the week, driving in a suburb part of Rio de Janeiro, a British family asked for directions. Unfortunately because they did not manage Portuguese properly they misunderstood the directions. Minutes later, stumbled into a dangerous favella (ghetto) called “Agua Santa” (Holy Water). Got shot by bandidos. The wife was seriously injured and as this was being written still in hospital. Such are the weaknesses of not handling languages properly. We live in a world of fast communication. Otherwise, have interpreters. Unfortunately, translating is not cheap.

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