Two instances in recent life that demonstrate this.
First last week I was feeling rotten because I had some weird stomach bug AGAIN that was kicking my butt for a few days. I managed the strength (ok, a bit dramatic but it helps with the story) and I was outside hanging laundry when a neighbor asked me how I was feeling to which I replied “nzuri kidogo kwa sababu tembo si nsuri” which I thought meant, “I am only ok (you never really say “not good” you only say a little good in Kiswahili which of course begs the question what do you say if everything just plain sucks…) because my stomach hurts (or is not good)” but when she responded by laughing and chatting with the Mama of our Mlinzi I realized I actually said “I am not well because my elephant is not well”
Tembo is elephant and tumbo is stomach. opps! I held my stomach so the meaning was clear but there was again some laughter at my expense.
The second time I switched vowels it was an innocent mistake with a rather raunchy outcome.
After returning from our fabulous trip to see the Colobus monkeys at the national park I blurted out to our Mlinzi and his wife “Lao, tunatazama kuma nyingi sana ndani miti “and I thought this meant “today we watched many monkeys in the trees” but after I uttered my sentence, that I might add I was pretty darn proud of, Mama laughed hysterically at me. Now, as readers of this blog know well she often cracks up at the antics of my Mzungu self but I did think it was rather odd how funny this seemed to her but alas not being able to clearly ask why it was so hilarious (or understand the answer) I figured it was no big deal. That was until today when I happened to be looking up a word in our Kiswahili dictionary (kuliko) when my eye wondered down the page and I saw the following entry for kuma.
Fabulous, so I actually announced with gusto “today we watched many vaginas in the trees.”
A monkey is Kima not Kuma. Duly noted.
Now this is true in English as well, if you mean to say “shut the door” but switch just the u you say something quite different but really did I have to learn this my telling people I watched vaginas in the trees? My only consolation is that I caught it before I practiced my new sentence with the entire neighborhood. At least I can laugh at myself, right?