Laughter and learning in eight weeks of online Xhosa lessons | Skillfully

She's gorgeous, I'm gorgeous: laughter, joy and learning in eight weeks of Xhosa lessons

Janis Slingsby
22 November 2023

Janis Slingsby writes about her profound, funny and fabulous learning journey on the beginners' Xhosa course Speak Xhosa in Eight Weeks, offered by UCT's distinguished teacher Dr Tessa Dowling via Skillfully...


I first signed up for Tessa Dowling’s ‘Speak Xhosa in eight weeks’ in July, and what an extreme privilege it is to have Tessa as my teacher.


Learning Xhosa at this stage in my life, when my brain is just like my computer - outdated hardware, not enough RAM and not enough storage capacity - is not really conducive to the challenge. In fact, in trying to tick off my bucket list to ukuthetha isiXhosa, there’s a hefty dose of feeling like Monty Python’s accountant Herbert Anchovy, the aspiring lion tamer. 


Tessa is wonderful. Her patience is astonishing. Her enthusiasm is unmatched. No judgment, endless encouragement. At the end of the evening class, I'm ready to take on the ladies at the Spar. Bursting with confidence I start with molo. Feeling in the groove, brain rapidly going nowhere, a bit like singing along with the anthem, I throw in an unjani. I also chuck in a wena, even though as soon as it leaves my mouth, I realise it was premature. Before long, I’m out of control, and in the heady, inhibition-free inspiration of Tessa’s belief in us, I am a lion tamer. 


In the ‘ring’ and deploying all my resolve to achieve my bucket list dream, I throw in my entire verbal Xhosa vocab - 20 words - at the lady asking me how many pies I want. By now, I’ve told her I’m fine repeatedly, asked how she is repeatedly, told her she’s gorgeous, I’m gorgeous, her tackies, which I can’t see, are stunning, and my dress, although I’m actually wearing shorts, is stunning, and muttered something about the sun being wet, instead of the very impressive Ilanga likhuph’ intlanzi emanzini


As I drift away, I round it all off with a triumphant Ube nemini emnandi, really loud, with best accent, albeit awkwardly slow to match the speed of my hard drive…. I think she’s smiling from ear to ear, truth is she’s laughing hysterically, while the other lady is as blank as my mind, in utter disbelief at this insane white woman’s attempt at imitating her beautiful language.


Doesn’t get much better at home! I have a captive audience once a week. In my determination ukuthetha isiXhosa, Alice is back for a weekly onslaught of random words and poorly constructed sentences, which she meets with another Monty Pythonesque response, looking as if I’ve told her, “My hovercraft is full of eels”.


I’m onto my second course (me and Henry, of similarly aged computers). My first eight weeks was like walking into a massive supermarket you’ve never seen. This second time I understand that the desire ukuthetha is not enough. I have to put in even more hours and effort than last time. And not just disabling ‘Janis’ hours, where my brain disappears down a rabbit hole trying to understand one word, in context of the complexities of Africa and its history.


Yet it’s that history which has resulted in my inability to communicate in an African language, and which makes learning Xhosa a privilege and a gift to myself. 


I encourage all to go on this journey, which brings a belly of laughs, an abundance of goodwill and the "Wow, that’s the new South Africa" in response to my Ndivuya ukukwazi - and which allows me to feel I have earned my place in this beautiful country I call home.


Looking to learn Xhosa yourself? Visit the course page here - we'd love to hear from you.