For most of us, language preparation in advance of a posting to Kinshasa focuses on French. We dust off our school days knowledge, brush up on our tenses and le, la and les, add a few more pertinent words for war, conflict, aid, and good music and bad driving and expect to be ready to go when we arrive.
Once here, however, it quickly becomes apparent that being able to communicate in French is just part of the picture. Listen carefully to what’s going on around you and you’ll soon discover that the real language of Kinshasa is Lingala.
Lingala is the first language of many of the residents of the city. It’s spoken at work, in shops and in restaurants. It’s used in the songs played on the radio and in the clubs. It’s on the signs and the graffiti. Taxi and esprit de mort drivers use it to curse at you. Children use it to ask you for things. Lingala is the real language of the people. And it is the window to the real Kinshasa.
Lingala is a Bantu language spoken by millions of people throughout north western Democratic Republic of the Congo, a large part of the Republic of Congo and some parts of Angola and the Central African Republic.
Although there are different explanations of how the language evolved, it is usually agreed that Lingala evolved from Bobangi, the trade language of the Bangala, a cultural group living along the Congo River upstream from what is now Kinshasa in the mid-19th century.
Lingala is a fairly simple and straightforward language. It is reassuringly regular with a limited vocabulary. Most estimates say that there are between 800-900 words in Lingala. In developing this book I was able to gather just about that many, but I’m constantly finding new (and old) ones to add to my list.
I first became interested in learning Lingala soon after my arrival in Kinshasa when I realised that a lot of the Kinois I was interacting with did not speak much, or any, French. I approached Professor Matthew Kabeya, the very excellent language instructor and interpreter for the British Embassy here, and asked if it would be possible to learn a few words. Matthew very kindly agreed to help.
Over the ensuing months, Matthew and I met once or twice a week. He would ask me about my activities since the last class and then listen patiently as I tried to explain, stumbling and straining to string together my slowly growing Lingala vocabulary.
There were no formal homework assignments. Instead, during each class Matthew would introduce me to some new verbs and vocabulary and I would do my best to commit them to memory and then to use them in my daily interactions and routines around the city. Along with Matthew, the people of Kinshasa became my teachers. And almost without exception, they proved to be helpful, patient and delighted that someone was taking the time to learn their language.
There are only a limited amount of resources for people who want to learn Lingala these days, especially for English speakers. There is a dusty Lingala- English dictionary from the mid-1960s that is some help. And some dodgy grammar books that you can occasionally buy from the vendors on some of the city streets. There are also a few online courses and vocabulary lists that are usually better than nothing at all.
But for the most part, there isn’t really an up-to-date manual about Lingala grammar and vocabulary for English speakers, which is why I’ve compiled this book. With the help of Matthew, and the technical expertise of Jose Molenge, the Deputy Corporate Services Manager at the British Embassy and a native of Equateur Province, where the most pure form of Lingala is still spoken, I’ve worked to assemble as much information as I could and to present it in what I hope is a simple and approachable way.
This book is not designed to be a formal language course – far from it. There are no exercises, no worksheets, no self-testing to see how you’re getting on. Instead, like me, I hope that you will learn a few words and phrases and start to let the city be your teacher.
If your experience is like mine was, you’ll likely notice a few things as you begin. First, people will stare at you. Even when you’re pretty sure you’ve said things correctly, they will often regard at you with a mix of shock and disbelief, as if the family dog suddenly started rattling on about the latest sports scores or something in the news.
When this first happened to me, I would return to my next class with Matthew and dejectedly ask what grammatical error I might have made or whether my pronunciation was correct. He would just smile and gently explain that hearing a white person speaking Lingala leaves a lot Kinois initially stunned. Say a few words and then wait for them to sink in before continuing, he would helpfully suggest. It seems to work.
The second thing you will likely notice is that the words and pronunciation that people use varies greatly. You will no doubt have people tell you that the words listed in this book are wrong, or old, or not even Lingala but instead are something else. They might even be right.
Lingala in Kinshasa is often a blend of traditional Lingala, French and some bastardized English. Lingala in other parts of the DRC is different. It is most pure in Equateur, but there are often multiple Lingala words for the same things depending on where you are in the country. And younger people tend to use a slightly different vocabulary than older people.
Lingala is growing, developing and changing. It is a dynamic and vibrant language and people speak it differently depending on who they are and where they are. Ask a group of Lingala speakers and they often won’t agree about a particular word or phrase or expression.
And since it is a growing, developing and changing language, some people won’t agree with some of the contents of this book. In response, I can only point out a few things in my defence.
First, pretty much everything has been checked and tested with Matthew and Jose, my team of resident experts. This is the best I can do. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Second, it doesn’t purport to be a definitive guide and language course. Pedants and linguists will no doubt be disappointed. But then they are often are.
And finally, it’s a free book. And you didn’t have to fight your way through traffic and past puppies, knock-off luggage and strange and unsettling anatomy posters of small children in their underwear to buy it. Be happy with what you have and don’t bother me with minor corrections. I’ve moved on. Better to be polite and buy me a beer sometime, particularly if you can order it in Lingala.
Kinshasa, May 2014