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August 20, 2011 / Dan Whipple

Warembo wengi

I have been learning to speak Swahili here, under the tutelage of my teacher and friend Oloo. Lesson nine in one of my books concerns dealing with “matatu touts and street children [and] with bothersome prostitutes and pickups.”

When our hypothetical WanJa, whom we’ve hypothetically met in a bar, says, “Ninakupenda sana,” (I love you very much), I’m instructed to reply, “Hapana. Nimeoa na sitaki mke mwingine.” (No. I am married and don’t want another wife.)

And this is after just eight lessons. I took German for seven years in high school and college, and I can’t recall a single lesson in which these useful phrases came up.

Tuesday night, Oloo and I went out to Klubhouse One to hear some jazz. The music was excellent — Mwai and The Usual Suspects if you ever have the opportunity. One thing I like about K1 is that is a hangout for actual Kenyans. Only a few wazungu come in on any given night, most of those with Kenyan friends.

As the evening progressed, K1 began to fill up with a large number of stunningly gorgeous women, few of whom would have been out of place on the cover of Vogue. Kathy—mke wangu—and I have often commented that you could recruit an army of supermodels, male and female, just from people on the streets of Nairobi.

Mrembo in Swahili means “a beautiful woman.” The plural is warembo. K1 was warembo central. Warembo wengi (Many beautiful women). They were slender, raven-haired, flawless complexions, high gleaming cheekbones, perfect white teeth, periodically springing to their dancing feet to dance, shooting enticing glances toward our table. Had the author of Chapter Nine known of these warembo, he might have included a few alternative phrases—Sioi. Vipi! (I’m not married. What’s up!)

Now you may find this hard to credit, but almost all of these women were casting their come-hither looks at me, mwanamume mzee mzungu, a bald, white, sixty-two-year-old with glasses and empty beer bottles, instead of the handsome, healthy 30-year-old Oloo who was with me, or indeed any of the fine specimens of Kenyan manhood that surrounded us. I asked him why this was the case. He said, “Wazungu is more likely to have plenty of money than Wakenya.

Aha. Sure enough, mrembo came over to our table, leant her head close to mine and said something I didn’t catch over the noise of the music. It’s not recommended in Swahili Lesson Nine, but I didn’t say, “Sitaki mke mwingine,” even though I don’t want another wife. Instead I asked her to dance.

I warned her that I only knew how to dance one way, western swing. She considered this suspiciously, but agreed to try. It didn’t go well. When she went north, I went south, and so on. We gave up and resumed our places at our respective tables. This dancing strategy is apparently just as good a method as the Lesson Nine approach because no other mrembo came round after that. Oloo and I did get up and dance some with no one in particular. Not western swing, though.

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One Comment

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  1. Dan Neal / Aug 20 2011 7:20 pm

    Well, I credit you for getting some useful instruction all the way around.

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