Bongo Zozo: A Global Swahili Billboard

By Shimbo Pastory, CSSp.

From Galston, Kilmarnock, Scotland, our international correspondent Shimbo Pastory spoke to Bongo Zozo, who is based in Southampton, England, in the south, about his journey with the Swahili language as the world celebrated World Kiswahili Language Day. Bongo Zozo stands out for mentioning a possible enduring global volunteer in the advancement of Swahili.

Bongo Zozo, our readers will love to meet you.

My name is Nick Reynolds, known as Bongo Zozo, a Shona word meaning ‘chaos’. I happened to be in Zimbabwe when I first started making vlogs, so Bongo Zozo is one lucky character that made me who I am. My vlogs are set in Africa and I travel to Tanzania in particular. I hoist the Tanzanian flag and my Swahili is mainly Tanzanian language. Bongo Zozo is a platform and a way to share my experiences around the world and speaking Swahili.

What inspires your passion for Swahili?


First of all, what excites me about Swahili is that I married a woman from Tanzania, Mama Jessica, and now have two grown children. I have lived in Tanzania for 18 years. I learned Swahili because I needed to communicate. I was amazed that people who speak English never learn another language; They have a kind of arrogance that English is a superior language, a business language, and everyone else should speak my language. I wanted to go down this path of learning, I like learning things. You look back at school and realize you’ve forgotten most of it. But you can’t forget a language that easily. It’s a useful tool that stays with you. So I decided to learn this language. When I was at university, there was a little competition between us, the Wazungu, about who was the best at learning Swahili.

I found it easy to learn Swahili because people, especially Tanzanians, are very pleased when a foreigner tries. On the way to Vijiwe, people burst out laughing when they heard Mzungu speak Street Swahili: “Mambo vipi… Hamna noma!” Street Swahili is really cool, it makes people laugh. Even in my current vlogs I use words like kuchamba, kusuta, words that will make people smile. I like making people smile. I know foreigners don’t know the accent; while I say “majimoto”, my European and American friends say “madjihmoutoh”.

What is the relationship between Swahili and the cultural diversity of East Africans?

When it comes to cultural diversity and Swahili, there is a great connection. Of course, if you don’t speak Swahili, you don’t really go into many people’s homes, especially in rural areas. I find many East African cultures prevalent in rural areas; The cities are too western. It was primarily the Tanzanian culture that attracted me. For example the greeting. To get a feel for Tanzanian culture, you need to speak Swahili.

For example, when I first arrived in Tanzania in the late 1990s, some of the old men and women even in rural areas could actually speak English very well, I’m not sure how it is now. There are many cultural associations with words. You have to learn a language to learn a culture. To give just a few examples, in the previous answer I used the word “kijiwe”, you can’t understand this outside of its cultural context. There is no word for Kijiwe in English because we cannot have them. People don’t just sit under the trees and talk and drink coffee. They don’t do that here in England. But it’s part of the beautiful Tanzanian culture, which is why you need to know the word “Kijiwe”.

Another word will be “kusindikiza” which doesn’t translate very well into English. It could mean to accompany, but in context it means to accompany someone directly to their home to keep them safe from animals and majambazi (bandits). It’s different in England, where people just accompany you to the door. There is also a word “Pole!” and many others. You cannot understand African culture if you do not understand the language. While Pole could mean ‘sorry’, you can’t say ‘sorry!’ to a person who has fallen on the road here in England. they just want you to help them. In this case, the word “pole” shows that Tanzanian culture shows more care than English culture.

Bongo Zozo in Kilimanjaro National Park. He has lived in Tanzania for 18 years and is married to Tanzanian. PHOTO| FILE

What are your long-term plans to promote Swahili to the world?

In terms of long-term plans to promote the Swahili language, yes, I love speaking Swahili. But here’s the problem, I do vlogs, I do Facebook, and I don’t get paid for it. The reason I don’t earn anything is because Swahili speakers don’t click on the advertisements in YouTube videos. 89% of my followers are from Tanzania, about 8% from Kenya and the rest is a mix of people from DRC, Comoros and Uganda.

I hosted Drew Binsky, an amazing YouTuber who I took to the Serengeti. He showed me the app where he makes $60,000 a month from his travel vlogs, but I get $3 a month. Swahili speakers don’t click on the ads, which is why I don’t get paid. That’s also one reason why nobody else does it.

I’m not doing this for the money, but because I love the people of Tanzania and use the opportunities of my travels to promote Tanzania. If you’re doing it for the money, there’s no hope. There are hundreds of people traveling the world sharing their experiences in English and one of them is doing the same in Swahili and that’s me. But I understand, because among the Swahili speakers and Tanzanians in particular, we are not yet at the stage of buying things online. Facebook, my largest platform, does not support Swahili for advertising; We hope that in time we can do it. But I plan to continue vlogging in Swahili.

Do you feel your efforts are valued?

I don’t go around appreciating it. But it is beautiful and it will be beautiful to be appreciated.

Do you face challenges in promoting Swahili?

I don’t face any challenge with my Swahili PhD.

Given the current global acceptance of Swahili, what should we expect?

That’s a very interesting question because it should have to do with money. There will be a time when I will also look forward to making money from the initiatives that come with my efforts to promote Swahili. When I speak Swahili, people listen to me. I would say money has to be invested to promote it and the money has to be used appropriately.

I’ll take Squid Game as an example. Although many people watch it with subtitles, you can hear the Korean language come out and spread all over the world.

Now why can African magic films or no films at all go global? We should recognize the need to sell what we have. Most African films are produced on a low budget; and another important thing, they discuss topics that are not interesting for the global audience, a lot of witchcraft and umbea (gossip); and when there are subtitles, they are often poorly translated. What needs to be done is that more money needs to be funneled to filmmakers to improve their production and to invest in skilled and competent expertise in developing the subject matter so that a story about Africa can be equally interesting and appealing to the wider world audience .

About Sonia Martinez

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