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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Nyoko! Or, your mama! A lesson in the (Kinya)Rwandan family

Kinyarwanda is a notoriously hard language. We’ve barely touched on the complications of the 16 noun classes (and how all adjectives, possessives, verbs and objects must match each class). Several sounds exist that don’t exist in English, and the spelling is sometimes inconsistent.

Family relations have been a particularly confusing topic, so much that I’ve heard multiple trainees swear they will tell people they have no family. Some of the confusion is due to the fact that Rwandans categorize family relationships differently.

An example of the different categories: to discuss siblings, there are 4 words.
- Mushiki (mu-shee-chee) is used to refer to a male’s sister. 
- Musaza refers to a female’s brother.
- Mukuru is an older sibling of the same sex, so a male’s brother or female’s sister.
- Murumuna is a younger sibling of the same sex.

Manageable? Try stepping up to cousins and nieces/nephews.
- Babyara is cousins – but only from your father’s sister or mother’s brother.
- Abavandimwe banjye (literally, “my siblings”) is your cousin by a father’s brother or mother’s sister.
- Similarly, Abana banjye (“my children”) are nieces and nephews from a same-sex sibling’s kids.
- Bisengeneza banjye are a woman’s brother’s kids.
- Bishywa banjye are a man’s sister’s kids.
- Nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles by marriage (e.g. your husband’s sister’s kids) have no appellation.

Complicated! Aunts and uncles are similarly divided – there are separate categories for a father’s sister, mother’s sister, father’s brother, and mother’s brother.

It is understandable that such a different culture and language might have evolved such different concepts of extended family relations and therefore the words to describe them. I can see the internal logic in the system.

What I can’t wrap my head around is that there are separate words for my father/mother/aunt/uncle, your father/mother/aunt/uncle, and his/her father/mother/aunt/uncle. Where English has 4 words for these concepts, Kinyarwanda has 18. If I talk about my mother’s brother, I say marume (ma-roo-may), but if I want to ask about your mother’s brother I must use nyokorome (nyo-ko-ro-may), and a third party’s mother’s brother is nyirarume (nyee-rah-roo-may). At least all possessive nouns don’t function this way.

In summary: My mother? Mama. His mother? Nyina. Yo momma? Nyoko!

(An aside for anyone who’s curious about how I’m describing my nuclear family – The word for mother, mama, is conveniently similar to the word for aunt, mama wacu (wah-choo), which literally means “our mother.” Nobody has been surprised that my ˆ lives with us, or pursued the fact that I don’t have a father. Many people here have conspicuous gaps in their family trees, and it’s rude to pry.)

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