Monday, November 24, 2008


Last Saturday I went to climb an 8,055-ft. mountain called Lwala. Accompanying me were friends Nguran, JB, and Jonathan. We parked at a school at the foot of the mountain and hired three schoolboys to guide us up the steep incline. I had forgotten how deceptive mountains can be. Mountains in Karamoja seems even more deceptive than ones elsewhere. Must be a cultural things...oh, wait. What I mean is, at all stages of the hike, the mountain always looked smaller than it really was. It was never as easy as it looked to get from point A to point B. Every ridge above me that I was sure must be the peak, was just another terrace in the mountain's slope. By the time we reached the top, I was exhausted and out of water. Nevertheless, the view was breathtaking, as was the coldish wind and fragrant flora. On the very top we found a tree like a cedar or cypress growing amidst the rocks. Some kind of grass was growing there that smelled so refreshing, Nguran said smelling it was like 'drinking cold water'. I agreed. Wildflowers---at least fifteen different species---blossomed all around. Unfortunately, I forgot the camera, so all I can offer is a couple photos from after-the-fact. Finally, on the way down, I was thirstier than I have ever been in my life. Seriously. I could think of nothing but water. Let me say, when I got home and took that first gulp of water, I knew what heaven must be like. Pure slaking of the thirsts of corruptability.

The Changing Seasons

The rainy season is finally over and the dust storms have returned. We go to sleep with the wind howling and awaken with the blinds bumping against the windows. A fine layer of dust is covering everything in our house. When I take a walk, I can taste the dust in the air. Despite all this, the roses are still blooming!

How to Write

The first major phase of our Ik language development project is to create an alphabet for the Ik language. It would be easier if we could just invent letters for the different sounds, but naturally, we’ll be using this very Roman alphabet. Of course, we’ll have to tweak it a bit, add some other symbols and marks. One of the steps in the process is to decide how to write what are called ‘ambiguous sequences’. This is hard because, well…it’s ambiguous. Some sounds can be thought of as vowels (u) or consonants (w). Imagine the sound of the final syllable of the English word soliloquy. The letters /q/, /u/, and /y/ aren’t exactly the most straightforward way to write this sound, but…how would you write it? In linguistic, phonetic writing, that sound could be written in the following 9 ways (actually, it could be written in at least 6 more ways than these; I just can’t use the proper fonts on this blog):


It’s just my luck that Ik is full of such ambiguous segments. Help!

The Englishes of the World

English is a world language, but every now and then, someone here in Uganda expresses their surprise at hearing that 'English' is our mother-tongue. I guess it's because it's second or third or fourth language for many Ugandans, as well as many Europeans who come here. In any case, as an American, I can assure myself that what people here speak as 'English' is not my mother-tongue. As the following examples highlight, a language consists in more than the words at face-value, but also the context, appropriate time and style of expression, and other factors.

The other night I asked our night-watchman how he was, and he replied: 'Sir, I am very fine because...I am enjoying your life and work.'

I brought a mid-morning snack out for my language informant. When he saw the garlic-roasted peanuts, he exclaimed, 'Very handsome!' At the sight of the fruit punch that I set before him, he added, 'Very fantastic!'

And some more priceless specimens from around the world:

In the window of an Istanbul souvenir shop: Sorry, we are open.

In a Taiwanese hotel room: Please beware of strangers dangling in the lobby.

Name of a store in China: Warm and Fragrant Bird

On an Indonesian Menu: Amiable and Sour Pork

In the window of a laundromat in Thailand: For best results, drop pants here.

In a Mexican brochure: Come to Juan's Jewelry Shop. We won't screw you too much.

In a German hotel: Serve You Right

In the washroom of a German train: To obtain water, move the handle to the left or to the right, indifferently.

On a Chinese train: Please do not throw yourself out the window.

In a Budapest zoo: Please do not feed the animals. If you have any suitable food, give it to the guard on duty.

Doorway signs in the Nigerian National Theater: "In Entrance," "Out Entrance"

Notice in a public bathroom in Italy: This WC is Goof for Everyone. Would You Like to Come Back Using It? Collaborate with Education. Don't Throw Bodies Solid into Toilettes!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Death at Our Doorstep

Or, at least on our sidewalk. Yesterday around noon I (Terrill) was walking over to our neighbors' house for a game of chess. I stepped outside our back-door and looked ahead to where our dog Buddy was waiting for me. I took a couple of steps forward on our sidewalk when, all of a sudden, a 5-6 ft. snake shot out from just a few feet from where I was walking. My heart nearly stopped. I didn't have the wits to follow the snake enough to know where it went. Instead I ran to our neighbors', called them, and they responded with an arsenal of sticks and other blunt weapons. Unfortunately (or not!), we never found it.

Looking in our snake book later, I confirmed that what I saw and nearly stumbled on was a Cape Cobra, which the book describes as 'unfortunately...both nervous and deadly'. The snake delivers 120-250 mg (ml?) of venom, of which 15-20 is enough to kill an adult human. Needless to say, I was shook up, and I think we are all being a little more cautions of where we tread. As of this morning, I've launched an offical 'snake habitat reduction' campaign on our compound.

Blog Settings

Sorry to all of you who have been frustrated over not being able to add a comment to our posts. I have just changed the settings to allow anyone to leave a comment.

We look forward to hearing from you!

(The reason we don't answer most comments is that we have very infrequent access to the internet. So when we do have access, we usually prioritize making new posts over commenting on comments. BUT, we LOVE to hear from you. So don't stop. :)

Bee Kind

Such was the theme of a vacation Bible school at a church in Virginia this past summer. Those kids (and their parents) donated funds to bee used in an Ik bee-keeping project. This was the first somewhat major community development project (besides healthcare among the Dodoth) we’ve undertaken, so we were very cautious in handling the money. I wanted to hand the cash to the carpenters myself and load the constructed bee-hives directly onto a truck to take them to Kamion (in Ik-land). No middle men. No muddling up. Our caution paid off, it seems, and last weekend we loaded twenty solid, wooden bee-hives and trucked them to Kamion. The cheapest transport for hire was more money than we wanted to spend, so in the end we used our personal vehicle. It was very satisfying to offload the hives and assuage the worries of the Ik. They have been the butt of many development schemes rife with deceit and corruption, and as such have adopted a more or less ‘believe it when I see it’ attitude. The poor condition of roads and the insecurity of the area make successful development projects all the rarer. After two weeks of waiting with no word of the bee-hives’ progress, the Ik of Kamion finally saw their hopes fulfilled. On behalf of the Ik, we extend a BIG thank you to the church in Virginia for their real-life, concrete attempts to bee kind. We also invite any of you to buy more bee-hives for the Ik of Kamion and other areas. A good, wooden hive is going for about $25.

'Bad Luck', as they say

Last Wednesday afternoon I thought I was finished seeing patients for the day when a father and his daughter showed up. The previous week, this pair had visited me because the child was hit in the face with a rock while at school. The poor seven year-old was in the wrong place at the wrong time; she got in the middle of a fight between two other big kids. I was glad to see that her wound had healed but dismayed to find a new wound on her face. Her father said she’d been standing over the fire at home, trying to help her mother when the oil splashed up into her face. It looked like a third-degree burn over the eye with a second-degree burn around it. She couldn’t even open her eye because of the burn location. Her father said that the incident had happened on a Monday night and that they couldn’t go to the hospital until the next day (due to insecurity at night). On Tuesday, they took the girl to the hospital only to be given tetracycline and told nothing else could be done. I then saw her another day later and gave her the first dose of pain medication she’d had since the incident. I also showed the father how to clean the wound and apply burn cream. They walked away with instructions about how to treat the wound and give the child pain medication. I couldn’t get over the look of misery on the child’s face. It’s hard to see one so young being traumatized by life at an early stage.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Fearing the Unknown

When we first arrived in Kaabong back in June, some village elders found out that I was a nurse and people started showing up at our compound all hours of the day. After several crazy months of seeing sick people whenever they chose to show up, I’ve gotten the community into a schedule that works better for me and keeps me sane. First I had to seek permission from the Medical Supervisor at the hospital to be treating people for minor health problems. It’s really just a lot of first-aid that I do on a day-to-day basis. I now see people on M/W/F and some Saturdays from 9am-1pm (African time…so I’m usually late).

Last Wednesday, the first two patients I saw were men who both had scabies. Basically, scabies are mites that get underneath the skin and make people itch. When someone comes to me with this problem, I make them bathe first before applying Malathion cream to the affected area. I gave a bucket of warm water and a bar of soap to the first man who complained of this problem. He was a thin but well-dressed man. While he was bathing, the other man came and presented with the same problem. I told him to go around back and bathe with the first man. Men here all bathe together and don’t mind nudity as much. The second man went around the shed but came back quickly and said he wanted another bucket, different water, and new soap. I was perplexed. I asked what his problem was but he wouldn’t say. He got a new bucket and headed down to our borehole (well) to bathe there. While he was gone, the first man presented himself before me clean and ready for the lotion. I held the bottle and poured lotion into his hand so that he wouldn’t contaminate the bottle by putting his fingers in the medicine. He smeared himself up and walked away happy. The second man returned from bathing five minutes later and I asked if he was ready to put the lotion on. He asked me if the first man had already used lotion from my bottle. I told him ‘yes’. He then politely refused the lotion and said he’d be on his way. Again I asked him what was wrong and this time he said that he didn’t want to use the same lotion that the other man used. I informed him that I had poured the lotion directly from the bottle into the man’s hand and that the man had not handled the bottle. Still, the man refused and left. Later our day guard explained everything. The first man who had come for scabies treatment was HIV positive and the other man had known this. He was scared to touch anything that the first man had touched, even refusing medicine from the same bottle.

As I talked with our day guard about the need for HIV education in the area, he agreed that most Karimojong people have misconceptions about HIV. School children are taught about HIV but many, many people don’t go to school and don’t receive this training. As a result, those with HIV carry a stigma. It’s really a sad situation that people don’t understand the disease and treat others badly as a result. I tried to think about how we treat HIV positive people in the U.S. and I’ve realized that it’s not much different than the Karimojong treat their people. Deep down, many Americans still hold fears when around HIV positive people and even an ‘advanced’ society discriminates against their own.

Endangered Languages

Last weekend Amber and I had the privilege of spending time with one of the rare remaining speakers of Nyangi. It was said that this speaker, an old man named Lokoli Isaac, is one of three surviving elders who know the ‘real’ Nyangi. Nyangi is important to me because it was the same language as Ik, probably a century ago. At some point a group of the Ik relocated from their current mountain home to another small mountain range several days’ walk westward. Over the years, the Dodotho (Karamojong), Toposa, and Mening peoples filled in the gap between the two Ik groups. The Nyangi slowly assimilated linguistically to their diverse neighbors. The language today is a mixture of Ik, Dodoth, Mening, Didinga, and Acholi…and who knows what else.

I’m interested in getting a record of Nyangi for a several reasons. First, it is part of a holistic attempt to truly know the Ik people in such a way that when I help translate the NT into Ik, I have as much background knowledge of their language as possible. Second, it’s part of SIL’s core values to make our findings available to the world at large. Since I have the privileged position of being on the ground in Karamoja, where I can access the Nyangi, I want to gather and share all that I find with anyone who’s interested. Third, interest in a people’s language usually generates a measure of prestige and cultural pride (the good kind), such that loving the Nyangi language somehow translates into loving the Nyangi people. Fourth, when a language—a way of expressing the world—dies out, it is simply a loss to humankind. There are many similarities between biological diversity and linguistic diversity. When an animal, bird, fish, or insect becomes extinct, we should be grieved because a unique species that God created has vanished forever. Likewise, when a language goes extinct, a unique species of human culture vanishes forever. These extinctions are, of course, inevitable, but I consider it a worthwhile cause to slow their happening. And fifth, I like to explore the country with my lovely sidekick, Amber!

To reach the Nyangia, we drove about three hours west, the last thirty minutes of which were down a ‘road’ half the width of our vehicle. We reached Lobalangit, the ‘urban’ center of the Nyangi. Having got advanced notice, they were ready for us, and we were able to start almost right away. In about an hour’s time, we recorded 150 Nyangi words and one Nyangi story on video and audio. The video is just to have a record of a Nyangi speaker speaking Nyangi. The audio I have transcribed, and the transcriptions can be used by historical linguists to compare with other languages. This helps them know which language are, or might be, related ‘genetically’, allowing them to piece together better pictures of African history. I couldn’t recognize most of the Nyangi words, but some of them were clearly from Ik. And the ones that are from Ik have changed from Ik in systematic ways. For example, the Ik word ats’esa meaning ‘to eat’ has become hajetha in Nyangi. So we can hypothesize that /a/ in Ik changes regularly to /ha/ in Nyangi, as does /ts’/ to /j/ and /s/ to /th/. We can expect to find these same sound changes in other words, and in fact, we have.

On the way back from Lobalangit to Kaabong we had a couple adventures, such as when a well-dressed, distinguished-looking drunk man tried to force his way into our truck, and when 5,000-10,000 cattle occupied the road that we were trying to drive on.

It's still all Ik to me

In my linguistic research into the Ik language, I’m moving beyond just collecting lists of single words. Now I’m gathering lists of sentences and even whole texts, like stories. As a result, I’m starting to pick up on some of Ik’s interesting, unique characteristics. For example, Ik expresses the ‘present progressive’ tense in a peculiar way. English expresses the same tense by adding the suffix ‘-ing’ to the end of verbs, as in: ‘She is cooking’ or ‘he is running home’. If I’m not mistaken, German and Spanish mark the present progressive in a similar way: by adding a suffix to the verb. French, on the other hand, expresses an action being carried out at the present moment by adding the phrase en train de, which means something like ‘in the process of…’ So if one says in French il se lève, that can mean both ‘he gets up (normally, usually)’ or ‘he is getting up’. But if a French speaker really wants to stress the idea that the person is in the process of getting up right now as we speak, she might say il est en train de se lever.

In Ik, the present progressive tense is expressed by adding a conjugated form of the verb cem before the infinitive of the main verb in question. The root cem means ‘fight, battle, make war’. If one wanted to say ‘she braids her sister’s hair’ in Ik, it would come out like sikwá sits’á eyáti (literally, ‘braids-she hair of-sister’). But to signify an action of braiding hair in the present moment, as an ongoing activity, an Ik might say instead cema sikwéso sits’á eyáti, which reads literally ‘fighting-she to-braid hair of-sister’, and in translation ‘she is braiding her sister’s hair’.

Now, it’s tempting for a linguistic anthropologist like myself to read an interpretation into all this. At first glance, it would appear that in the worldview of the Ik, life is such a struggle that it’s a real fight, a battle, to carry out any activity. It would seem that for humans in a difficult situation like that of the Ik, life is war—war against the world. To willfully accomplish anything, one must fight it out with the opposing forces. Moreover, if there is famine (as there has often been among the Ik) and disease, bringing weakness of body and will, to do anything right now and continuously may feel like a battle. But as tempting as this interpretation might be, I must keep in mind a phenomenon known to linguists as grammaticalization, which is just a five-dollar word that means this: languages tend to take, over time, certain words with very specific meanings and turn them into words that have a grammatical function rather than a specific meaning of their own. For example, in the French, it’s possible (though I’m not sure), that the phrase en train de really used to be related to the English word train. Both ‘trains’ and ‘continuous activities’ kind of process along a path, such that it’s not hard to see the relation. But today, the phrase en train de also has a grammatical function, which is to give verbs a progressive feel. Another example would be the English word get. Alone, get means ‘to receive’, ‘to acquire’, ‘to fetch’, etc. But in modern English get can have the grammatical function of causation. ‘To get the car washed’ means ‘to cause the situation in which the car is washed’. The point is that over many generations, speakers lose sight of the meanings of certain words that end up taking on grammatical functions. As such, it’s quite possible that the Ik word cem no longer evokes a sense of struggle when used to denote the present progressive tense. If that’s the case, then the word cem has been grammaticalized.

But that brings up interesting questions about the origin of the Ik language, and of human language in general. If cem has been grammaticalized and has lost its original, vivid overtones, that implies that at some point in history it had not yet been grammaticalized! So even though it may be inappropriate for me to read a meaning into cem that is not there today, it may still be true that in the shrouded past of the Ik, their intense life-and-death struggle left its tell-tale mark on the Ik language itself. As we ponder the mysterious origins of language, we can imagine peoples all over the globe reacting and responding to their environment and giving linguistic expression to it. Today, our languages are littered with forgotten historical artifacts. The ancient, primal expressions of our ancestors have been layered over again and again by the sediment of time. How many of you think of the fact that the word express, originally from Latin, at some point in history meant ‘to squeeze out’, such that to ex-press something may have meant ‘to squeeze a word out of something’ or maybe ‘to squeeze a word out of yourself about something’? Or what about how we express the ‘future tense’ in English? Have you ever considered that when you say ‘I will weed my garden’, you may be echoing people hundreds of years ago, for whom to bring the future into the present, an exertion of will was required? ‘Will you come tomorrow’ means ‘do you will to come tomorrow?’ ‘Will you to come tomorrow?’ ‘Will you will to come tomorrow?’

In the end, ‘exerting your will to make the future present’ (English future tense) and ‘engaging in a struggle to remain in the present’ (Ik present progressive tense) are both profound indicators of what it means to be human. And that’s why I love language.