07 April 2011

Who's Your Grandmother?

While beginning to learn chiShona, my family and another family also studying chiShona went to get language practice at Sesame in Gokwe Province where a clinic and school were being rebuilt after the war for independence. We were young, late 20's early 30's, with small children. The wives were struggling to get a cooking fire going so they could cook supper on a steel drum lid when one of the workers came by and greeted them, "Masikati* vambuya."

The young women were a bit upset. "We're not that old," they responded. "We don't have grandchildren. These are our children."

The worker tried to explain that he hadn't called them grandmothers, he had used a term of respect. And so a new insight into Shona language and culture was learned.

The mothers of both your mother and your father are addressed as ambuya. Your grandmother is ambuya. She addresses you as muzukuru, just as your sekuru does.

When my wife and our friend heard vambuya in the greeting, they understood it to be the plural of ambuya. For words referring to people the plural is represented by va-. They understood the worker to be calling them grandmothers.

However, there is another relationship for which vambuya is used. It is the title bestowed upon one's mother-in-law by a man. By extension, it is also applied to the wives of his wife's brothers.

In the story above, the greeting was intended to welcome the young women by showing them the respect reserved for sisters-in-law. They were not being called old. They were being accepted into the community.

*Masikati is the standard afternoon greeting.

(Part of the confusion in hearing the difference between ambuya and vambuya is due to the sound of the Shona v. It is not explosive like the English v. It is much softer and slightly implosive. The explosive v sound is written vh in Shona. There is also a subtle tonal distinction between the two words. Ambuya is low-high-low whereas vambuya is high-low-low. Some dialects essentially drop the soft v in vambuya. For the ear unacquainted with these subtleties, these distinctions are virtually undetectable.)

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