1. Kobanda – to start
This section introduces the basics that you’ll need to speak and understand Lingala. It addresses things like pronunciation and basic sentence structure. It also introduces 10 of the more common verbs and 10 words that you’ll use when you’re first starting.
And since one of the first things you’ll likely want to do is to be able to greet people that you meet in your community and around the city, we’ll begin with how to make the small talk that is the glue of most social interactions.
Granted, this will only be a superficial start to the learning process, since you’ll be learning a few words and phrases in isolation. But it’s a good way to start to get the feel for speaking Lingala, and for getting used to the reaction you’ll likely get from Kinois once you do.
1.1 Exchanging greetings
The word you will probably hear most as you begin to speak Lingala is mbote (m-BOH-teh), which means ‘hello’. It can be used at any time of day or night and is most properly followed by the person’s name, such as ‘Mbote Jenny’ or ‘Mbote Helena’, although it just as often stands alone as a greeting.
Once you’ve mastered mbote, you can then move on to other parts of a standard greeting, such as asking how things are going or how the person is.
The most common question to ask how things are is ‘Sango nini?’ (SANG-go NEE-nee). Sango means ‘news’ and nini means ‘what’. So you’re basically asking the equivalent of ‘what’s new?’
There are a few standard replies. The most common one is ‘Sango te’ (SANG-go teh). Again, sango means ‘news’. And te, as you will come to see, means ‘no’ (or a negative). So the reply is essentially ‘nothing new’ or ‘not much’. This is a good thing, not someone with a problem.
Another common reply is ‘Sango malamu’ (SANG-go mah-LAH-moo). Malamu, meaning ‘good’, is a very common and useful Lingala word that you will encounter often. So, the reply is ‘news good’ or ‘things are good’.
Once you’ve broken the ice with mbote, and maybe a sango or two, you might be asked how you are. Without getting into too much verb work too soon, this can be handled pretty easily if you know the Lingala forms for ‘you are’, which is ozali (oh-ZAH-lee), and ‘I am’, which is nazali (nah-ZAH-lee).
Most commonly, you will be asked: ‘Ozali malamu?’ (oh-ZAH-lee mah-LAH- moo?), which means, ‘are you good?’ or ‘are you well?’
Provided you are, in fact, good and/or well, the reply is simply: ‘Nazali malamu’ (nah-ZAH-lee mah-LAH-moo), which means ‘I am good.’ If you are not good and/or well, you can be brave and say ‘Nazali malamu te’ (nah- ZAH-lee mah-LAH-moo teh), which means ‘I am not good’ (literally ‘I am good not’), but you can probably see that it will inevitably lead to a host of follow-on questions in Lingala about you being not good and/or well that you might not want to tackle yet. Probably best to stay positive at this point.
Finally, it’s always polite to return the favour and ask how the other person is. You can, of course, ask ‘Ozali malamu?’ (oh-ZAH-lee mah-LAH-moo), which means, ‘are you good?’ or ‘are you well?’ But you can also streamline things and simply ask ‘Na yo?’ (nah yoh), which means ‘and you?’ or ‘Boni yo?’ (BOH-nee yoh), which means ‘how are you?’ You will probably hear ‘Nazali malamu’ (nah-ZAH-lee mah-LAH-moo) as a reply.
Kinois typically use a standard set of questions and responses when meeting and greeting people:
Mbote! – (m-BOH-teh) – Hello!
Mbote na yo! – (m-BOH-teh nah yoh) – Hello to you! (when saying hello to just one person)
Mbote na bino! – (m-BOH-teh nah BEE-noh) – Hello to you! (when saying hello to more than one person)
Ozali malamu? – (oh-ZAH-lee mah-LAH-moo) – Are you well?
Nazali malamu – (nah-ZAH-lee mah-LAH-moo) – I am well
Sango nini? – (SANG-go NEE-nee) – What is new?
Sango te – (SANG-go teh) – Nothing is new
Sango malamu – (SANG-go mah-LAH-moo) – Things are good
Na yo? – (nah yoh) – And you?
Boni yo? – (BOH-nee yoh) – How are you?
1.2 Introducing yourself
After the pleasantries are exchanged, you’ll often be asked about your name. Most commonly, you’ll hear ‘Kombo na yo?’ (KOM-boh nah yoh?) – which literally means ‘name have you?’ The appropriate response is ‘Kombo na ngai’ (KOM-boh na n-GUY) and then your name. So, the appropriate reply will be ‘Kombo na ngai Marge’ or ‘Kombo na ngai Ted Allen’.
‘Kombo’ is the key to speaking about names:
Kombo na yo? – (KOM-boh nah yoh) – What is your name?
Kombo na ngai … – (KOM-boh na n-GUY) and then your name – My name is …
1.3 Basic pronunciation
Lingala pronunciation is fairly straightforward and consistent. Although there tends to be a slight stress on the second syllable of verbs, there are no overly strong accents at the beginning or end of most words.
But for the most part, it’s not necessary to worry too much about stressing or emphasizing one part of a word or another. I’ve included stresses on the second syllables of a lot of words in the pronunciation examples because it can often be difficult to approach new and strange multi-syllable words, and because people starting out often tend to place too much stress at the beginning or end of words, which isn’t really appropriate for Lingala.
Similarly, the vowel and consonant pronunciations also tend to be straightforward and consistent.
Vowels are typically ‘short’:
a – ‘ah’, as in ‘mama’
e – ‘eh’, as in ‘egg’
i – ‘ih’, as in ‘it’
o – ‘oh’, as in ‘boat’
u – ‘oo’, as in ‘chute’
And the consonants are typically ‘hard’:
c – as in ‘cap’
g – as in ‘girl’
Double consonants – mb-, ng-, etc. – require a slightly more acquired touch. In each case, you’ll want to pronounce the first letter, but this needs to be done very quickly and softly. The second consonant is the dominant partner in the pair. It looks harder than it is. Have a few tries and listen to others and you’ll soon pick it up.
Name game 1
If you’re using this book, chances are you’re a mundele (mun-DEL-ee). And you and a collection of your ex-pat friends are mindele (min-DEL-ee), the plural form. Although different Kinois – and different Congolese – ascribe different meanings to the word, the term mundele generally refers to a person viewed as being foreign, white, and wealthier, better-educated, better- travelled and having better chances in life than most Kinois. Obviously, depending on individual circumstances, this may or may not be the case.
I’ve always been a bit intrigued by the term. I’ve had many discussions about it with Congolese friends and colleagues from a variety of backgrounds. Almost without exception, they maintain that mundele is neither pejorative nor racist. It’s a word that doesn’t really translate, they explain. Don’t be offended.
But it still never fails to jar me a bit when I’m called one. And, despite the reassurances, it certainly sounds unpleasant and racist when someone spits the word out at you when you’ve done something that they don’t like. Still, I try to take my friends’ and colleagues’ explanations to heart and to learn embrace life as the mundele that I will apparently always be to most Kinois. It’s just the way it is.
Name game 2
In addition to mundele and mindele, there are also other terms to describe individual subsets of foreigners living in Kinshasa. Lebanese and Chinese expats are commonly referred to by their cultural group names – ‘Lebanois’ and ‘Chinois’. And Belgians are often referred to as les nokos (lay NO-kos) – or ‘the uncles’.
A Kinois friend once explained the nokos-Belgian reference when I was asking about how modern Congolese view Belgians in light of the many of the brutal aspects of the colonial period. ‘We call them uncles because they are like family that you might not really care for that much, but who have always seemed to be around,’ he said with a wry smile. ‘Like it or not, we’re sort of attached to them. We’ll sometimes even root for them if they’re playing football on the television.’
1.4 Getting started – The first verbs and words
Now that you’ve mastered the pleasantries and have a sense of how to pronounce some of the words you’ll be encountering, it’s time to start looking at the basic building blocks necessary to actually start speaking Lingala.
Unlike a lot of languages, Lingala uses a fairly simple and direct approach. The verbs are wonderfully regular, the conjugations approachable and the vocabulary often fairly predictable. And there are no articles – no ‘le’, ‘la’ and ‘les’ – to gum up sentences and frustrate speakers. To my ear, Lingala sentences often sound a bit like Russian ones: ‘I take car’ or ‘You eat meal now.’
1.5 The first 10 verbs
You can go a long way in speaking Lingala simply by learning 10 of the most common (and in my experience, some of the most useful) verbs.
Every Lingala verbs begins with ‘ko-’, which indicates that it’s the infinitive form. And almost every verb in Lingala ends with ‘-a’, which also indicates that it’s the infinitive form.
This will probably look and seem a bit unsettling at first, since the beginning and end of all of the verbs will obviously be the same when you begin practicing. But you will soon come to appreciate this reassuring regularity when you start to conjugate, particularly with using the future and past tenses.
So, the first 10 Lingala verbs to learn are:
kozala – (koh-ZAH-lah) – to be
kozala na – (koh-ZAH-lah nah) – to have
kolinga – (koh-LING-gah) – to want, to like
kosala – (koh-SAH-lah) – to work, to make
kosomba – (koh-SOM-bah) – to buy
kokanisa – (koh-kan-NEE-sah) – to think, to hope
koloba – (koh-LOH-bah) – to speak
koyeba – (koh-YEH-bah) – to know
kokoka – (koh-KOK-kah) – to be able to
kosengela – (koh-sen-GEH-lah) – to have to
You may find it helpful to look past the initial ‘ko-’ and to instead concentrate on the second syllable of each of the verbs (which will form the root, as you’ll see in a minute) and the rest of the verb as you start to become familiar with them.
1.6 The first 10 words
And just as with the verbs, knowing a few of the more commonly used words can get you a long way when you start speaking Lingala. Initial conversations often seem to revolve around work, family, what you’ve done, are doing or are going to do, or what you want. Accordingly, this list looks at some of those areas and introduces a few key words.
So the 10 words you’ll want to know from the beginning are:
mwasi – (MWAH-see) – wife/woman
mobali– (moh-BAL-ee) – husband/man
ndeko – (n-DEK-oh) – brother/sister
ndako – (n-DAK-oh) – house
mosala – (moh-SAH-lah) – work
mbuma – (m-BOO-mah) – fruit
ndunda – (n-DOON-dah) – vegetables
mayi – (MY-ee) – water
malamu – (mah-LAH-moo) – good
mabe – (MAH-beh) – bad
Please and thank you
Draw from it what you may, but there isn’t really a commonly used word for ‘please’ in Lingala. Happily, there is one for ‘thank you’, although the exact pronunciation and spelling seems to depend on who you ask.
The word I’ve learned for ‘thank you’ is botondi (boh-TON-dee), although you’ll frequently see and hear it presented as natondi (nah-TON-dee) or natondi yo (nah-TON-dee yoh). Either variant seems to work.
For ‘please’, the form is more closely aligned with the French ‘s’il vous plait’ – ‘if you please’. In Lingala it’s soki okosepela (SOH-kee oh-KOH-she-peh-lah) – soki (if) and okosepela (you will be content). I use it when it’s appropriate, but it’s not really that common. It’s actually a bit formal and most Kinois seem a bit bemused when they hear it. If you do get a reply, it will almost always include ‘nakosepela’, or ‘I will be content’.
1.7 And a few other important bits
As you’ve begun to see, all of the verbs in the infinitive form in Lingala begin with ‘ko-’. And for the most part they often seem to share a special sort of sound and rhythm that makes Lingala such a lovely language, especially in song lyrics.
Once you understand the basics of conjugation and how to combine the right pronouns, prefixes and suffixes, along with a few common ‘helper words’, the same approach can be used over and over for just about any situation.
So, with the first 10 verbs and words introduced, we’ll next look at pronouns. There are two types of pronouns in Lingala: subject pronouns and personal pronouns.
1.8 Subject pronouns
There are seven subject pronouns in Lingala and they’re one of the key building blocks of the language, so it helps to memorise them as soon as possible.
na – (nah) – I
o – (oh) – you
a – (ah) – he/she
to – (toh) – we
bo – (boh) – you (plural)
ba – (bah) – they
e – (eh) – it
Unlike a lot of other languages in which the subject pronouns and the conjugated verbs are two separate words, Lingala combines the two into a single word. Subject pronouns are never used by themselves. Instead, they are always joined with the form of the verb that you want to use at the beginning of the verb. Always.
So, ‘I am’ becomes nazali (na+zali, the first-person singular form of kozala, ‘to be’) and ‘you are’ becomes ozali (o+zali, the second-person singular form) and so on.
Here’s how it works for each of the seven subject pronoun forms for kozala:
na+zali – nazali – (nah-ZAH-lee) – I am
o+zali – ozali – (oh-ZAH-lee) – you are
a+zali – azali – (ah-ZAH-lee) – he/she is
to+zali – tozali – (toh-ZAH-lee) – we are b
o+zali – bozali – (boh-ZAH-lee) – you are (plural)
ba+zali – bazali – (bah-ZAH-lee) – they are
e+zali – ezali – (eh-ZAH-lee) – it is
We’ll look at the methods for conjugating in more detail in the next section, but you’ll likely already begin to see how reassuringly regular things can be.
1.9 Personal pronouns
There are six personal pronouns in Lingala, and they’re used very, very often, so it also helps to learn them.
ngai – (n-GUY) – me, mine
yo – (yoh) – you, yours
ye – (yeah) – him, her, his, hers
biso – (BEE-sew) – we, ours
bino – (BEE-noh) – you, yours (plural)
bango – (BANG-oh) – them, their
The personal pronouns are an important part of most conversations in Lingala, particularly with its streamlined, article-free construction. Unlike subject pronouns, personal pronouns are often used by themselves and you will hear them in almost every sentence.
Personal pronouns usually appear after the subject they refer to. For example, ‘our house’ is ndako na biso – ndako (house) and biso (our). And ‘my fruit’ is mbuma na ngai – mbuma (fruit) and ngai (mine).
You’ll no doubt notice that there is a ‘na’ in each of these sentences. Be patient. We’ll get to that next. For the moment, focus on the order and the rhythm of each of the sentences. It’s a very common construction, and one that you’ll hear over and over.
Here are a few more examples:
mwasi na ngai – mwasi (wife) na ngai (mine) – my wife
mobali na yo – mobali (husband) na yo (you) – your husband
ndeko na ye – ndeko (brother or sister) na ye (his/her) – his or her brother or sister
mosala na biso – mosala (work) na biso (ours) – our work
ndako na bino – ndako (house) na bino (you – plural) – your house
ndunda na bango – ndunda (vegetables) na bango (their) – their vegetables
As you’ll have noticed above, Lingala uses one or two key prepositions – na (nah) and ya (yah) – in almost every sentence. These two little words are often indispensable in connecting the various parts and you’ll often see more than one in any given sentence, although at first it might not be entirely
It can also be a little confusing, because na can sometimes seem to have the same meaning as ya, but it doesn’t really seem to work the other way around.
The definitions of these two important little binders are:
na – and, on, in, of
ya – of
In Kinshasa, they are basically interchangeable, but in other parts of the country there is a clear distinction between the two. Most of the people you will likely hear talking in Kinshasa will be using na a lot more than ya, so don’t let it throw you. And don’t get too hung up about which one to use, especially when you’re just starting out. Plenty of time to practice the finer points later on. When you’re first starting, if in doubt, add a na and you probably won’t be far off the mark.
1.11 ‘No’s, ‘if’s, ‘and’s and ‘but’s – indispensable helper words
Finally, as with any language, there are a handful of words that you simply can’t do without. Words like ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’, and ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘or’. These little words are often crucial for getting your meaning across.
As with the other bits presented so far, it’s helpful to commit this short list to memory. You’ll find yourself using them just about every time you speak.
boye – (BOY-eh) – so, thus
ebele – (eh-BEL-eh) – many, a lot
eh – (eh) – yes
kasi – (KAH-see) – but
moke – (moh-KAY) – few, little
pe – (peh) – and
po – (poh) – because
po na nini – (poh nah NEE-nee) – why
soki – (SOH-kee) – if
tango mosusu – (TANG-goh moh-SOO-soo) – maybe
te – (teh) – no
to – (toh) – or
So that’s it – about 50 words. Pretty much everything you need to start speaking a reasonable amount of Lingala. In the next section, we’ll start to put them together.
Chegey or Shegey?
It’s impossible to spend much time in Kinshasa without meeting members of one of the city’s best-known groups, the chegeys or shegeys. While people may differ on the preferred spelling, few would argue that they generally fail to bring much in the way of positive contributions to interpersonal interactions. Or that they can be a bit dangerous. But personal shortcomings aside, the origin of the term for these street corner gangs is a bit of a mystery.
One theory is that the word chegey was coined after Laurent Kabila’s child soldiers – the kadago – marched into Kinshasa, reminding people of mini- Che Gueveras. Hence the ‘chegey’ version. It’s probably worth noting here that although Che did spend time in eastern DRC in 1965, things did not go well between him and his Congolese counterparts. He left describing his time as an ‘unmitigated disaster’ and few of the Congolese involved would have disagreed. Pairing his tarnished reputation with young thugs is certainly in keeping with the wonderful irony that many Kinois are so adept at drawing upon. The problem, however, is that the term was apparently in use before Kabila and his kadago arrived.
A second theory is that shegey is an ironic reference to the 1985 Schengen Agreement relaxing border controls and allowing free movement across 26 European member-countries, similar to the way that the gangs seem to move about Kinshasa with impunity.