Language of my heart

I grew up in a warm-watered fisherman’s town on the coast of the Western Cape. My neighbours were Christians & Muslims, of all colourful colours. I attended a Muslim primary school but this school accepted students of other religious dominations also. So I played with friends named Genevieve and Tasneem and we all got along famously.

I lived in a predominantly Afrikaans-speaking-Cape Malay-Coloured-Muslim household and I am one of the lucky few to have grown up at the feet of my grandparents.

My grandmother, born in 1931, was a well-travelled, fair-skinned, Muslim, city girl who frequented the Adderley Street’s and Company’s Gardens of Cape Town. She grew up on the outskirts of Cape Town city and showcased this with her fine, fashionable and elegant attire. Her forefathers descended from the island of Java as slaves at the Cape. She also had relatives who were so fair skinned they were considered to be “white”.

My grandfather, born 1928, was a brown-skinned, Muslim, farm boy who stole her heart while visiting her on his bicycle. He grew up on a well-known farm surrounded by sand dunes where you will find the shrine of a famous Indonesian Sheik erected near the mouth of a river. This Sheik is one of the first slaves who established Islam at the Cape. This Sheik is also responsible for the Indonesian linkage between Cape Muslims and our brethren from Indonesia and Malaysia.

The language that my icons of my life spoke was a blend of Afrikaans, English and Malay jargon. They used special and colourful Malay words to refer to items like a toilet as a “jamang”, sandal was called a “kaparring” and the act of praying was “sombaing”.  Mix this with English and Afrikaans – enter the language of my heart.

Growing up in a Muslim family I was exposed to Arabic phrases used in religious studies and in everyday Muslim communities. “As salaam mu alaikum” means Peace be upon you. The response to that is “Wa alaikum salaam” meaning Peace be upon you too. These are glorious Arabic greetings that when translated into English becomes a wish of wellness and good tidings on the recipients. What a wonderful way to express a happiness to see someone. When I walk in at work I greet colleagues with the English version of my Arabic greeting and they are very appreciative of my good wishes.

Through primary school and high school, I was among the top students in languages and I believed I would grow up to become a great philosopher and make up quotes like Socrates and Rene Descartes. Throughout my childhood, I appreciated poetry and writing. I was involved in writing competitions and excelled in the area of languages with merit. After school, when I started working, I naturally learned the art of business language and my talent for casual and poetic writing started to fade. I left school almost 15 years ago and I now have to remind myself how to write creatively and colourfully. It is more of an effort for me to write as an adult than it was when I was a child.

My mother tongue is Afrikaans. The Afrikaans of my heart is not a pure form of Afrikaans but more of a “kombuis” – Afrikaans (even though kombuis means kitchen, in this context it is used as a slang word to indicate the type of slang we speak). The Afrikaans of my heart is the Cape Dutch that my grandparents grew up with that were infused with little phrases and words from English and Malay and every other language spoken in my community. Even though I communicate easier and more fluently in English, Afrikaans is the language I favour. I insist my children learn my kind of Afrikaans through me by speaking it to them in our home and through my extended family with our family conversations and chats when we all get together. The ‘suiwer’ (pure) Afrikaans is what they get taught at school.

I have dabbled in many languages in my lifetime. As a child, I endeavoured to learn French though a little instructional booklet and cassette owned by my youngest aunt. I would sit in on her French study sessions with the tutor pronouncing basic tourist French loudly over our old Hi-Fi system. I hardly speak French but when I hear certain French words or phrases I have a good idea of what is said. In high school, I had a friend who was an exchange student from Chile and she taught me the basics of Spanish. The lessons stopped after she returned back to her home country at the end of that year. I am still fascinated with the Spanish language so I try to teach it to myself via the smartphone app Duolingo. I am not very diligent in practising the language due to lack of time but I do try just in case I get an opportunity to travel to Spain. I understand Hindi thanks to the Bollywood films I watch on repeat. Certain words just stick with me that I am now able to watch Hindi films without subtitles. My in-laws who are Tamil Indians have their own dialect and words for certain things. I am exposed to the limited amount of words and phrases used by them. My daughter started doing Xhosa as a subject last year when she started grade four. I can proudly say that my daughter and I have passed grade four Xhosa with flying colours last year and this year we will study Xhosa even harder together. Knowing the basics of Xhosa puts her at a huge advantage in South Africa.

I enjoy everything about my languages, speaking English and Afrikaans, reading English and Afrikaans, learning Xhosa and Spanish informally and using other diverse tongues, such as Arabic and Malay as my own.

I am more creative with the language I use especially while writing since I take my time to phrase my words boldly and eloquently than I would do when I am speaking.

I believe the languages I know make me who I am today. I am a Cape Coloured Malay Muslim belonging to the human race. When I’m at home I speak kombuis-Afrikaans and at work, my version of Afrikaans becomes pure and professional. With English clients and colleagues, my accent is very rounded and rah-rah but with colleagues and teammates whom I share a close bond with, they are privy to the effortless, flatly accented and unpretentious version of my English.

My children won’t forget the beautiful language of the old Cape Dutch. It’s the language of my forefathers, the slaves who came from Indonesia and settled at the Cape, who mixed and blended words and phrases from their home country, their slave masters and the local Bushmen. It is unique only to the culture of the Cape Coloureds and Cape Malay and it is my heritage and a part of my children’s heritage. It is a liberating language for South Africans that symbolises the positive contributions made by its cosmopolitan cultures. I am proud of this language of my heart.

I am proud of this language of my heart.

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