Thi ĩ Kiumaga; and how art spices up languages

BY KENYATTA OTIENO Recently I visited my local printer; let us call him Mr Wacopier, to print some reports. A client walked in and jokingly teased him how he must be pushed to deliver in anticipation for an excuse only to find his work ready. He went into his wallet and paid happily. Wacopier then began to look for balance to give him. I jumped in and told him he can’t give the man his balance after that tongue lash. He saw wisdom in my opinion and told his friend off. The guy turned smiling and said, “ndathii ngiumaga” – loosely translating to; Let me go while drying. Everybody burst out laughing leaving me to feel like the only stranger in Jerusalem. I asked Wacopier why people were laughing and he explained to me about a new Kikuyu hit song Thiĩ Kiumaga by Jose Gatutura that translates to – go while drying. He explained the song briefly and how his client had used it, which left me impressed. Like I do when I encounter such stuff, I jumped into my Facebook profile and posted it. A friend sent me an inbox that the song was dirty with lurid lyrics deep in sexual overtones. He felt that the post and song do not represent my character. I called Wacopier immediately for clarifications. I started asking my Kikuyu friends about it. I logged onto Youtube and watched the video very keenly. I got the flow; the singer uses the term to represent what the many men who sleep with a loose lady called Irene tell her after their time together. The singer also warns her that she should beware of HIV/Aids by chanting, mukingũ ni ugwati. Literally, the song sounds dirty and demeaning to a woman but the social scene was trying to clean it up. When I look at it from my encounter at Wacopier, it is about going and sorting your stuff on your way – our deal is done. Is the song dirty? Oh yes, the singer definitely used a catchy topic to sell his music. Like the late Okatch Biggy of Luo benga who used sexual narratives to popularize his songs, Gatutura waltzed his way into the psyche of his Kikuyu community. Can the phrase be used in formal conversations? Oh yes. Wacopier’s friend brought it out in a clean manner though the people who laughed were referring to its original meaning. Eat your tomatoes I could as well have told my friend who did not like my post on Facebook to eat his tomatoes even if they are raw. This brought to mind an upcoming group of talented thespians from Nyalenda Slums in Kisumu who I met in 2007. They gave me copies of their work on a CD and I enjoyed their mastery of Luo language. They had a good skit on ‘sex for fish’ trade on the beaches of Kisumu. In one of the skits, an irate fisherman announces that no one should try to seduce his wife; “ng’ato ka ng’ato ocham nyanje kata numu”, which translates to everybody should eat his own tomatoe even if they are raw. In their attempt to promote the “Be Faithful” part of the ABC campaign against HIV/AIDS they related a woman to tomatoes. Several years down the line, the phrase is used by Luos to put off people. If a Luo tells you to eat your own tomatoes, he simply means, you can go and cry in the toilet if you feel offended. Somewhere along the line, the narrative changed. This is the power of art in language evolution. You must have heard Luos use the word Atoti when referring to a beautiful lady. The late Wicky Mosh and Maji Maji even composed a song about Atoti. The term was popularized by Okatch Biggy in one of his songs and it caught like bush fire. Many English words were coined when writers broke the formal rules of the language to pass a message across. A good example is the common phrase “The law is an ass” popularized by Charles Dickens in his novel Oliver Twist. Comedian Chipukezee popularized the phrase Mwanaume ni …. It gave people a template to describe men’s strengths and weaknesses with humour. Eric Omondi gave us Hawayuni and Tanzanian rapper AY has recently popularized kula kwa macho in his song featuring Diamond Platinumz, Zigo. Today when someone feels he cannot acquire something he desires, all he will say is wacha nikule kwa macho; let me eat with my eyes which translates loosely to, I will admire it from a far. Language is dynamic and performing artists have a powerful tool that simplifies language before propagating it. Thiĩ Kiumaga song may have sent revelers in clubs into crazy fits of enjoyment but it did not stop there. It crossed into social spheres and transformed into a line people use to close a deal. When one decides to cut his losses and move on, the best way to phrase it is; let me take the offer and go drying. The same applies to Cham Nyanji. It sounded like warning to the randy people in the society when it first came into the Luo public domain but it did not stop there. Today it is the phrase that best informs someone to cut his losses and move on. To put it another way, take it with a pinch of salt and move on. That is the power of art; we can all go drying while eating our tomatoe, even if raw.

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