Mwalila is a common greeting in the Bemba-speaking provinces of Zambia. It’s a question meaning are you enjoying, and for the longest time I was nonplussed whenever someone said this to me. What was the correct way to respond? Nalila? (I am enjoying) Ee mukwai? (Yes, ma’am/sir) Bwino? (Good – that’s not even proper grammar) Sana? (Very much)
Well, thanks to Ryeon, a fellow Luaputian and much more proficient Bemba speaker than me (check out her blog here), I’ve learned that there are a few different options for a proper answer to mwalila. The most common and most culturally appropriate response would be panono, which means okay/slowly. To answer sana would be to say that you are enjoying very much, and in Zambian culture this comes off as bragging and is rude. So instead, answering panono is a safe, boilerplate response.
But another answer that Ryeon taught me is taficila pa bwali, which means “not better than nshima”:
Mwalila (Are you enjoying?)
Taficila pa bwali (Not better than nshima.)
Nshima, or ubwali, is the staple food here in Zambia, a thick porridge made from maize flour or cassava flour that is so ubiquitous it is nearly synonymous with the nation itself. If a Zambian has consumed five pieces of chicken (inkoko) and five pounds of vegetables (umusalu) but has not eaten nshima, he will say that he has not eaten. So to answer the question of “Are you enjoying?” with “Not better than nshima,” the replier a.) defers respect to the importance and ubiquity of nshima in Zambia, b.) displays humility and conformity, and c.) shows that she is “in on the joke,” so to speak.
I tried it out for the first time in the market yesterday. Both times I used taficila pa bwali in response to a vendor’s query of mwalila, I was met with eyes lighting up, wide grins, and impressed laughter. Instant camaraderie.
In other unrelated news, I bought a Zambia national football team (Chipolopolo) Nike track suit the other day in the market for K90: matching black jacket and black pants, both with orange accent stripes and with the Chipolopolo patch. I can’t wear it during the day – even during the cold season, mid-day temperatures are well into shorts/t-shirt range – but in the cool evenings and cooler early mornings I won’t step outside without pulling this suit on. It’s all kinds of ridiculous awesomeness.