October 3, 2012

Martial Arts, Misunderstandings and My Dirty, Swahili Nickname

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This week in Tanzania, I entered the dangerous crossroads that is the simultaneous study of East African languages and mixed martial arts. Here is what I learned.

Lesson No. 1: Options for exercise while conducting research in the African wilderness are limited. One can’t easily outrun a cheetah. Hiking doesn’t count, and I’m not into yoga. As a conservationist, I should be hugging trees. Instead, I hit them. Provided with boxing or MMA gloves, shin guards and enough know-how in striking arts to avoid hurting yourself, you can make a perfect punching bag out of a tree. Onlookers might think you have been possessed by demons, but it is rather absurd anyway to explain your Western obsession for working out to a woman who walks 20 kilometers a day in the blaring heat to fetch water for her family. So just strike away. Lesson No. 2: In Swahili, hitting trees translates as “kupiga miti.”Lesson No. 3: Even after years of learning a language, you will still stumble at times, and your flubs might turn you into the laughingstock of the village. My recent case came down to ignorance of slang. When a Tanzanian friend once asked my preferred form of exercise while in the field, I simply answered, “Ninapiga miti (I hit trees).” His guffaws carried on for about seven minutes after that.

He then explained what he had heard me say: in Swahili slang, kupiga miti means to “to fuc$!”

“So do you do these workouts when you are with or without your wife in the wild? Hah!” he exclaimed.  Such jokes and banter have since spread to a squadron of friends, fellow researchers, and camp staff.

At breakfast, I am often greeted with, “Hey, J.D., have you already been hitting trees this morning?”

“You know me. Once the sun rises, I can’t resist pounding those trees.”

Lessons learned. So whichever way you prefer to piga miti and whatever languages you are learning, just remember it’s all part of the journey. You might end up being called, as one of my research assistants recently quipped, something like Bwana Kupiga Miti (Mr. Fuc$!).

My wife is not exactly thrilled with this moniker.    J.D. O’Kasick is a graduate student currently in Tanzania. For more of his photos, videos, and blog posts, follow www.fightwritewild.com.

Original Author: J.D. O’Kasick