Languages aren’t my forte. I studied French and German at school and got pretty good marks (even if I do say so myself) but that didn’t mean I could speak either with any confidence.
In the intervening years my language skills have got steadily worse. Two and a half years in Kenya has given me very basic Swahili but the ‘teach yourself Swahili’ pack is gathering dust on the bookshelf. Travelling around east and central Africa I’ve picked up the odd bit of Arabic and can say “Hello, I am an English journalist” in about half a dozen languages but that’s about it.
So, my Swahili is bad and my French is gastronomic. But I can understand a bit of both, which makes eastern Congo not as tricky to work in as other non-English speaking places.
Not only do they speak both French and Swahili – they speak it at the same time. A sentence that starts in Swahili often veers off into French before sliding effortlessly back into Swahili.
My favourite example came from a motorcycle taxi guy who was taking me to a meeting but wasn’t sure where I was telling him to go. “Where is it, exactly?” he asked. Or, as he put it: “Iko wapi, exactement?