How Language Illustrates Poverty

April 5, 2018

By Devin Hibbard

Language can illustrate so much about a culture. Eskimos who have an intimate relationship with the Arctic have more than a dozen words for snow. In India, there is no word in which a woman can be possessive of a man (“my man” becomes “I belong to that man” in Hindi) except when she is speaking of a slave or servant. And in Uganda, I came across a new word recently that made me think deeply about the differences between Uganda and the US.

I was giving several of my office colleagues a ride downtown after work one steaming hot day, and had my car window down. We were laughing together. And then my friend said, “We have a word for that in Luganda.” “A word for what?” I responded. She gestured to my arm, resting on the window sill, hand outstretched to the breeze. “That.”

OKUSOWOLA

There is an entire verb in Luganda devoted to the act of having one’s hand resting outside the car window. When I asked her to explain what this word meant, she instead described what it characterizes. “It is someone who has no cares. The boss,” she described. The told me that young people might joke to each other “Nsowola!” meaning ‘watch how cool and carefree I’m going to be today’. Or it could be used as criticism – ‘look at that person acting like they are so much.’

I’m sure I don’t totally get the actual translation, nor understand all the meanings, but I was struck by its mere existence. I don’t think anyone has ever noticed my arm out the window before, let alone have an entire commentary about what it must mean. But this is Uganda. A country where cars are an enormous luxury, and belong only to the rich. A place where people get where they are going mostly on their two feet, and have ample time to observe those flying past them on the road side. An existence in which sitting in a car and flailing your arm around represents a far away dream of having few cares, being well fed, and having the material well being to meet your daily needs and then some.

Imagine if your big dream was to drive around in a car and hang your arm out the window.
I can’t say that I won’t take all the incredible blessings I have in my life for granted. I won the lottery on where I was born, through no effort of my own. Even when I go into homes of the women we work with and share a conversation or a meal, at the end of the day, I go back to my home with electricity and running water. I know that if I fall sick, I can afford medical care, no matter what. And sadly, the color of my skin still grants me privilege and access that many of my Ugandan friends will never have. So, the world is a screwed up place, and try as we might to “fix it” we might just be making it worse.

But I do know that in the future, whenever I hang my arm out the window of my car to enjoy the breeze, I will say a little prayer of gratitude. “Okusowola.”

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