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Jungle lingo gets tourists lost

By | January 25th 2010

By Kariuki Muthui

Most tourists who come visiting the world-famous Masai Mara Game Reserve and other of Kenya’s wildlife sanctuaries arrive armed with a Kiswahili translation of all the names of animals they expect to see.

But what they do not reckon with is a hidden mystery, that the language of the jungle is not confined to the animals alone.

Tourists on a game drive through the Lake Nakuru National Park. Tour guides and drivers use a unique lingo that cuts off tourists from their conversations.

The men, and women, who drive and guide tourists through game viewing excursions and jungle trails have their own lingo that is bound to make any tourist who has memorised the Kiswahili list feel lost.

Most of the tourists to Kenya come craving to see the Big Five — Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Buffalo and Rhino — and often have mastered their names in Kiswahili by the time the tour van leaves the hotel for a game drive.

They crane their necks through the open roof of the van and train their binoculars in different directions. The lion and other predators are usually top on the list of must-see game.

The tour van meets another coming from the opposite direction in the game reserve trails. The drivers flash headlights at each other and stop when the vans come side by side to exchange ‘intelligence’.

The tourists listen keenly as the drivers talk, trying to catch any animal name to know if they are within range of any luck.

The driver who is entering the park enquires, "Umeona vichwa?" (Have seen the heads?), to which the outgoing counterpart answers "vichwa wako na harusi karibu na mlima, masikio hapa nyuma yangu" (the heads are having a wedding — a mating group — near the hill and the ears are just a short distance down my trail).

Lion’s name

Now, any tourist listening for the word simba for lion will not know they are referred to as vichwa and that elephants are masikio not ndovu in the lingo of Kenyan travel guides.

A baboon in one of Kenya’s national reserves. The animal exists widely in and outside animal sanctuaries. Photos: Courtesy

Rufus Kimani, an experienced tour guide, explains the advantage of their jargon is that it keeps the savvy tourist, some of whom even speak basic Kiswahili, from eavesdropping on their conversation when they talk one-on-one or over walkie-talkies.

"Tourists put a lot of pressure on the guide or driver to make sure they see what they want. They pay a lot of money and they feel they must see all the animals," he says.

"Drivers and tour guides developed their own language over a long time, and it keeps changing, so that the visitors will not know what you are talking about. Even if you miss the said lions, they will not know they were so near. This way they believe what you tell them along the game trail," says John Thungu, a long-time tour driver.

"You should see the pressure tourists put on a driver if their colleagues in another van tell them a particular rare animal has been spotted somewhere," says Thungu.

He adds, "When we use our lingo we keep everything a mystery. Sometimes I know exactly where lions are but I keep making as if I can smell it in the air. It makes tourists very excited to see a guide sniffing the air with my window down."

And so it goes, the cheetah is not duma and the leopard is not chui. The two animals are referred to as madoadoa (spots) but the cheetah is ya chini (on the ground) while the leopard is ya juu (of up — in the trees).

Bufalo is referred to as ngombe (cow), rhino is pembe (horn) and any herd of antelopes is mbuzi (goats). The crocodile is makasi (scissors) for its sharp teeth.

But some animals which are widely occurring in the parks are just referred to by their names, like zebra and wildebeest.

Geographical lingo is equally as interesting. Tour guides live an event-filled life and they tend to name places after their adventures. For example, sometime in 1997, a driver named Kinuthia who was leading a Somak Safaris convoy got stuck for an entire night in a muddy swamp called Laager in the Mara. That area is now widely known as Kivuko ya Kinuthia’.

Shot at

In the Samburu reserve, there’s an area between Wamba and Maralal where a Gametrackers’ Safaris tour guide who was with a group of Dutch tourists, was shot at by bandits. But they had a security escort and the officers repelled them. That area is now known as Corner ya Cianda, after the tour driver.

Those interviewed say the jargon is a credit to their adaptability in the jungle. for the tourists, they nearly always end up wondering what version of Kiswahili they picked.

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