Leaving Mombasa

[This post was written on Aug. 8, but since I've been without power for 3 days you're getting the delayed version :) ]

Hard to believe it’s only been a week since my last post! Last Friday I treated myself to a day at a place called Aroma Cafe in Mombasa while the rest of my homestay family was at work. The hilarious part was that I spotted about six other wazungu (white people) when I walked in – more than I had seen during my entire stay in Mombasa combined. Americans like their lattes, I guess.

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3 Ways to Be a Long Vowel in Ekegusii

There are 3 ways a vowel may be realized as phonetically long in Ekegusii:
1. A phonemically long vowel that speakers hear as long
Example: tààtá ‘father’

2. A phonetically long vowel that speakers hear as short

Example: ɛ́ŋɔ́ːndí ‘sheep’

3. Two short vowels placed next to each other that are part of separate syllables
Example: ékeené ‘log’

There are a few pieces of evidence that suggest that these analyses are correct. First, while phonemically long (1) and double vowels (3) can have rising tones or falling tones (that is, the first mora can have a different tone than the second), phonetically long vowels (2) cannot. Or at least, the rise or fall is phonetic and not phonemic. So while it’s possible to have words like áàsé ‘place’ (1) and ɛ́kɛɛ́nɛ́ ‘truth’ (3), which have falling and rising tones respectively, it’s not possible to have *ɛ́ŋɔ̂ːndí.

Even though, phonetically, the word éɲùndò ‘hammer’ is pronounced [éɲúùndò], speakers hear the second vowel as a single low-tone /ù/.

The phonetic falling tone is simply the result of peak delay on the initial high tone – that is, it takes a while to come down off the initial high tone, so that the beginning of the following low tone still sounds high for a short period of time. Thus rising or falling tones may only occur on phonemic long vowels or a sequence of two short vowels. The difference is subtle but principled.

As far as the coalescence of two short vowels is concerned, the syllable break is often clearly audible, especially when the tone on the two vowels is different.

Most helpfully, however, is the fact that Gladys and Kennedy were largely consistent in how they represented the three types of long vowel in the dictionary. Here are some examples from their dictionary for each type:

1. Phonemically long vowels:
sika [siːka] ’cause to ferment’
(phonetically [sííká])

2. Phonetically long vowels:
genda [gẹnda] ‘go’
(phonetically [ɣɛ̀ːndà])

3. Two short vowels:
ekeene [ẹkẹẹnẹ] ‘truth’
(phonetically [ɛ́kɛ.ɛ́nɛ́])

Only the third case is actually written with two vowels in the dictionary; the other two cases show just a single vowel in the headword. And of those two, only phonemically long vowels show a long mark <ː> in the pronunciation. In other words, it’s generally possible to distinguish which of the three long vowels a word has by its dictionary entry – pretty convenient!

So there you have it: 3 ways to be a long vowel in Ekegusii!

Diving into Ekegusii [é.kè.ɣù.sì.í]

Most of my posts so far have been about Mombasa and my homestay family, but as much of a joy as it’s been to see them again, the real reason I’m here is the Ekegusii Encyclopedia Project (EEP), and in that regard I certainly haven’t been idle.

A screenshot of the Ekegusii dictionary in Lexique Pro. ngegu is ‘ashore (adv.)’, while engegu is ‘shore (n.)’

As was expected, it took some time to get in touch with Kennedy and meet up, first because I had to get a phone and make my way down to Mombasa, and then because Kennedy was tied up with work. Continue reading

Fun in Mombasa

Despite safety issues in the city, I’ve still managed to enjoy myself while here, mostly in the company of my homestay brothers, who kindly insist on going with me anytime I go out, which is absolutely fine by me, both for safety reasons, and because they’re just fun to be around.

Last Friday, the morning of the recent shooting, I went to the Mombasa archaeology center with Mchula, who works there.

The office floor where Mchula works

The office floor where Mchula works

They’ve just built a brand new building that overlooks Fort Jesus and some of the prettier parts of Old Town.

The view from Mchula's office

The view from Mchula’s office

He then took me to their library, which while small actually houses a useful collection of books, many of which were relevant to my interests. So I bought a one-month pass (not knowing then that I wouldn’t be staying in Mombasa) so I can relax and work there during the day. It’s quiet and cool, so a nice place to work, and something to just get me out of the house.

Mchula at the archaeology center

Mchula at the archaeology center

After the library, Mchula toured me around the Swahili Cultural Center. It’s really an amazing organization they’ve got going. They have programs that teach men how to do the traditional types of Swahili woodworking, especially the beds and intricately-carved doors they’re known for, and women how to sew kofias in the traditional designs. They also have Swahili language classes and a variety of other cultural events at different times.

The Swahili Cultural Center

The Swahili Cultural Center

It’s actually a model that Kennedy would like to emulate with Ekegusii – funding permitting, he’d like to start a cultural center like this, where youth could come to learn all the traditional ways of doing things. Many of the people who participate in the training at the cultural center go on to sell the crafts they make, and it becomes a business for them. It would be wonderful to see something similar happen for the Abagusii.

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus

Fort Jesus

After leaving Mchula at his office, I strolled around the garden behind Fort Jesus for a bit, and ran into a butterfly garden of all things.


Apparently it’s only been open about two months. The garden was really nicely done, and the variety of butterflies they have in this region is really pretty astounding.

Afterwards I slipped down the street to the office for the School for International Training, where my study abroad program was based in 2006-2007. The program coordinators, Athman Lali Omar and Ali Shariff, were both there and thrilled to see me, giving me all sorts of helpful tips on things I might do in Mombasa and Kisii, and some contacts I might look into. I also browsed through all the independent study projects that students have filed over the years, going back to 1990.

All of the old independent study projects

All of the old independent study projects

Only mine and one other person’s projects were related to linguistics, so there wasn’t as much there as I had hoped (the other project was studying Kenyan sign language though, which was neat to read).

My paper's still there!

My paper’s still there!

The school library was a great boon however, smaller in size than the archaeology library, but far better in quality of materials. I’ll need to make another trip there before I leave Mombasa. The one set of materials I’d really like to see though, if time permits before I leave Kenya, are the dissertations in the linguistics department at the University of Nairobi. There are likely to be several very useful things on Ekegusii there.

The next day, a fun cultural exchange happened. Kennedy, wanting to meet my homestay family and talk with them about my safety and plans for Kisii, was invited over to dinner at my family’s house. Now, Kennedy is Christian and from upcountry, while my homestay family is Muslim and from the coast – two very different cultures. Kennedy, though, was a great sport, treating the whole affair much like he treated going to America, where he knows the culture is different, and so open to trying new things. It wound up being great fun. While my family typically eats at the kitchen table, for large gatherings or for special guests they put down mats on the floor in the living room and all sit around that instead (I’m convinced the primary purpose for this is to make room for the dozens of different plates they put out, which would have never fit on the table).

The spread that my homestay family made for Kennedy

The spread that my homestay family made for Kennedy

Kennedy got a complete kick out of it, and noted that in the 30 years he’s lived in Mombasa, he had never eaten sitting on the floor like that.

Kennedy trys out eating while sitting on the floor for the first time

Kennedy trys out eating while sitting on the floor for the first time

I found out later that these weren’t the typical foods he’d eat at dinner either. Some of it was similar enough, mainly the rice dishes and beans, but otherwise it shared little resemblance with the kinds of dishes he’s been treating me to at his house this past week. I find it remarkable how different the coastal vs. inland cultures are here in East Africa. Even they treat each other as foreign cultures, I think largely due to the religious differences, and it tends to cause some political tensions between the two regions as well. I was slightly worried about this at dinner, but it turns out I had nothing to fear. Rukiya and Mchula were gracious hosts, and Kennedy had a fun time trying new dishes, and chatted happily with them for a long time. They discovered that Rukiya even works with his cousin! (Though what gets called a cousin here is pretty broadly interpreted.)

Since the shooting, I’ve still made the occasional outing, again accompanied with my homestay brothers, but only to limited places, general right near the house and away from tourist areas. After dinner on Sunday, Saidi and I went out for cocounts, which I hated last time I was here, but now I absolutely love. The coconut actually goes through a series of stages, all of which have Swahili names (and probably Ekegusii names too – I intend to find out!), but it’s the very first one, when they’re called dafu (pl. madafu), that they’re the best to eat and drink. For about a dollar, one of the street vendors will grab a fresh coconut, use a small machete (panga) to chop off the outer layers, and then in one neat whack, open up the top of the coconut just enough for drinking. You’re handed the coconut with the straw in it, and when you’re done drinking the coconut milk, you hand it back, and they’ll scrape down the inside of it to get all the delicious coconut meat from the inside. They take one of the outer pieces of the coconut and quickly carve it into a spoon so you can scoop up all the coconut meat inside. All the while you get to sit on the sidewalk and chat with people and generally enjoy yourself.

The following day was officially Eid, the end of the month of fasting for Ramadhan, so my entire family was out visiting neighbors throughout the day, eating small bits of food at each place as they went.

The house all decorated for Eid

The house all decorated for Eid

This meant that nobody was preparing dinner at home, and so it was one of the very rare days when the children were expected to fend for themselves. So for dinner Saidi and I went out to a little outdoor place with communal seating called Mubin’s Cafe. Outside was a big grill, where they were serving up meat kabobs, chicken tikka, and tandoori bread.

The outdoor grill at Mubin's

The outdoor grill at Mubin’s

The service was exceptionally terrible (Saidi was thoroughly irritated with the waiter by the time we left), but the food exceptionally good.

Saidi and I's meal at Mubin's

Saidi and I’s meal at Mubin’s

The following night, too, Saidi, Fadhil, Arafat and I all went out for pizza, since this is something Saidi had always wanted to do (I voted for one of the local Swahili cafes, but the brothers won out). Again, terrible service (two hour wait for three pizzas!!), but surprisingly good pizza.

Grabbing pizza at the Pizza Inn

Grabbing pizza at the Pizza Inn

Finally, last night we went out to grab a few chocolate bars – a rare treat – to bring back for the family and everybody enjoyed trying all the different flavors (no dark chocolate, sadly).

So while things haven’t been as exciting around town and I’ve mostly stayed holed up at Rukiya’s, we’ve still managed to have a little bit of fun without wandering far afield. The real excitement has been on the research end of things, working with Kennedy, but more about that in my next post.

Jamaa yangu ya Kenya: My Kenya family

Rukiya is my homestay mother, and absolutely the sweetest woman. She’s always ready with a laugh and a smile, and treats me like one of her own children, right down to worrying about me incessantly :) She works at Standard Chartered bank here in town, and then comes home and works to keep the household running as well, with the assistance of the house help. I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for her, especially raising a houseful of rowdy boys, working often very late and then coming home to work here in the house, but always with joy and a smile.

Rukiya and Me

Mchula is my homestay father, an archaeologist who works at the museum in Mombasa. I can see why he and Rukiya married, because he too is quick with a laugh, and when the two of them get together there’s always lots of fun and laughing to be had. This is actually the second marriage for both Rukiya and Mchula, a bit unusual among coastal Swahilis. In this case, it just means that the house is always filled with one or the other of their children, and tons of guests.


Abdulatif (Tifu)
Tifu is the oldest of the children I’ve met, is Mchula’s son, and lives outside Mombasa with his wife. When I was last here, Tifu was working in Dubai, and came home for a two-week visit to see his family. I haven’t gotten to see him much overall, but from the first time I met him he’s always been incredibly welcoming and made me feel like a brother.

Aboubakar (Abou)
Abou was here the entire time I was back in 2006-2007, a wiry kid who was into rap music and Rastafarianism, and is a good brother to his younger siblings, helping Rukiya keep them in line. He is Mchula’s son as well. Not long after I left, Abou joined his brother Tifu in Dubai, where the pair of them worked as lifeguards in one of the tourist resorts. Eventually Tifu married and returned home to Kenya (possibly in the reverse order), while Abou stayed on. Now, Abou actually lives in Miami, working on a cruise ship that harbors there. With any luck maybe Jacob and I will get to make a trip down to see him at some point.

Rukiya’s son, Fadhil was a bit of troublemaker when I was here last, but seems to have made a complete turnaround, and now acts as the responsible older brother to Saidi. Since I was last here, he got a technical degree in electrical engineering from a college here in Mombasa, and now works full time in the city while living here at Rukiya’s. I have Fadhil to thank for the decent-quality wifi here in the house :)


Rukiya’s daughter, I had a chance to meet her for a few weeks back in 2007, when she returned home on vacation from school at Kampala University. I always really enjoyed talking to Ilham; she’s one of those people who opens up easily and takes a genuine interest in you. Since I last saw her she’s gotten married and had two healthy children. She’s now living in Nairobi with her husband, and to hear Saidi tell it, living quite the cosmopolitan lifestyle, “going around speaking English everywhere she goes”.

My bro, my partner in crime, my shadow. Saidi is the youngest in the family – only 13 when I was last here, but now 20 – and by far the most rambunctious of the bunch. As one visitor put it earlier today, “he likes to tell tall tales”. For a good portion of his childhood he grew up with American students around the house, since Rukiya regularly hosts students from the School for International Training, so Saidi’s English is great, and he knows all our wierd American habits better than the others in the family. I’ve learned a ton from him, because we’re always talking about differences between American and Swahili culture, so he’s always filling me in on some little cultural detail or another I didn’t know about. He’ll frequently tag along when I go out, so he’s my adventuring buddy while I’m here, and I’ll treat him to little things here and there that he doesn’t often have a chance to try otherwise. His first trip to the movie theater was with me, for example; and last night he used me as an excuse to order pizza at this place he’d always wanted to (and who am I to turn down pizza?). Saidi is in school in Dar es Salaam (capital of Tanzania, about 6 hours drive south of here if it were an interstate in the U.S., but about 9 hours bus drive here), getting a 3-year technical degree in marine engineering (so getting to work on ship engines and ship design), and is currently home on summer vacation until the end of September.


A friend of Saidi’s from Dar, who came to stay with the family over the break. He reminds me of Tifu in that he was instantly very welcoming to me, and he also gets a kick out of me speaking Swahili (which actually means I learn a lot of Swahili from him). He’s pretty quiet but I always enjoy his company.


The hired house help, who (I think) lives upstairs in the room next to Saidi’s. I say “I think”, because Arafat is also staying up there, so there are three people and two beds. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Bakari slept on the floor while Arafat was here. He generally keeps out of sight and doesn’t let himself be seen by guests, but I’m one of the exceptions to that rule since I’m also staying here and help out with the chores like the other members of the family. He’s probably the most integral person to the household, since he does the majority of the work and the cooking. He’s kind of Rukiya’s right-hand man, and they’re often in the kitchen together coordinating meals and cooking. I’m pretty sure Rukiya taught him how to make all the various foods she cooks, so that he prepares most of the meals. He’s very kind to me, and I think he appreciates the fact that I take the time to talk to him in Swahili and say thank you for things. When I was still getting adjusted to the time zone, he’d always make sure I had milk tea and hard-boiled eggs waiting outside my door if I slept though breakfast.