What they can’t eat, they can

English is notorious for not making sense. Words that mean different things sound the same, there are exceptions to every rule, and the distinction between there/their/they’re apparently still confounds many native English speakers well into adulthood.

Bemba, in contrast, is relatively straightforward. This doesn’t mean though that my conversations are confusion-free. Oh, no. Zambians speak faster than auctioneers, rattling off six-syllable words in approximately .048 seconds. Even when I’m able to make out their words I can’t always understand what they’re saying. (You see what I did there.)

For just one of many, many examples, I recently realized that ku lya means “over there.” When the two words are spoken together, they sound exactly like a word I do know, ukulya, which is “to eat.” So all this time I’ve been wondering why whenever I asked where somebody was, the response was invariably, with a gesture toward somebody’s hut, “Eating.”

It’s only natural for me to ask what they’re eating, and then I’m the one who gets looked at like I’m not making any sense.

Tabalya, ba lya!” they insist, pointing helpfully. He’s not eating, he’s there!

What I hear: “He’s not eating, he’s eating!”

This echoes too strongly of a parable from my childhood that so amused my father he could hardly get the punchline in without cracking up:

A couple of city folk are driving through the country and stop at a farm. The man exclaims to the farmer, “That’s a lot of fruit trees! How can you possibly eat it all before it goes bad?”

The farmer replies, “Well, we eat what we can, and what we can’t eat, we can.”

The man nods sagely, thanks the farmer for his time, and walks back to his car. He gets in and tells his wife, scratching his chin, “Those farmers sure are amazing people. I asked him what they did with all of that fruit and he told me that they ate what they could, and what they couldn’t eat, they could!”

It’s a constant source of amazement to me that I’ve managed to survive living on my own in a rural Zambian village for this long.


Found this guy on the side of my hut this morning -- I asked the kids passing by on their way to school if they ate snails and they wrinkled their noses in disgust


6 thoughts on “What they can’t eat, they can

    • hahaha why do I have a sneaking suspicion that “Anonymous” is actually Dad.

      What makes this even funnier is that I was literally recounting this joke two days ago — also as an example of weird Dad-humor. I guess the classics never die. 🙂

      • You’re right. I was laughing all night recounting this marvelous “play on words” that only work if you have a good grasp of English and know the old technique of canning. I bet there are jokes like this in every language. I always thought that the sign of language proficiency is “getting” the jokes and idiom like this one.

        What I was laughing about most was trying to tell the joke with the countrified twang of the farmer….

        BTW, I had to explain it to Mom….

      • Haha this is the Young family dynamic in a nutshell:

        -Dad, laughing his head off at something corny
        -Sons, cracking up at Dad laughing his head off
        -Mom, confused because she doesn’t think it’s funny 🙂

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