Probably the greatest thing about staying in a country for an extended amount of time, (as in this case two-three months) is getting the chance to acquire a more profound understanding of the culture, and in turn about the people of that given culture. It has taken me a while, but I believe that by now I’m starting to get a grasp of the distinction between the two ways of saying “I’m sorry” in Swahili, which along with greetings, “karibu” and “hamna shida” and a long list of various greetings seem to make up the quintessence of Tanzanian language (and thereby, culture).
In swahili the expression “Samahani” is used for the “traditional” sorry. It basically translates into the normal English “I’m sorry” – the sorry you would say when you have done someone wrong, or if you in some way caused them harm. “Samahani” is also used as “excuse me”, e.g. “excuse me, which is the right way to \whatever”.
However the Swahili language also has an other word for sorry; “Pole”, which seems to be translated best into English by “I’m sorry for you”.
The Tanzanians will use “Pole” in countless situations and it seems to more and more as if this word beholds a fundamental part of Swahili culture.
For example, if I would arrive home to my Tanzanian family, and would have hurt my foot while running, they would say “Pole”. Also for instance, if I’d state that I had had a very long day, and that I was tired, they would also say “Pole”.
While all of this makes perfect sense (in the respect that we would basically say the very same thing “I’m sorry for you” or “oh, that sucks bro” in English, or “det er jeg sgu ked af” or “av” (= ouch) in Danish), the interesting thing about Tanzanians, is how and when they use this expression, “Pole” – which makes them culturally so different from Danes, Americans and maybe westerners in general.
For instance, if you’re working, people will say “Pole na/kwa Kasi” (= I’m sorry that you have to work). When we go running, people will see us and say “Pole”. Likewise, if you ever complain about anything, people will react with “Pole”.
In the beginning this was difficult for me to make sence of: Why on earth would people be sorry for me when I’m running? – It’s my own choice that I went running, its not something anyone had done to me? And why would anyone be sorry for me/us that we have to work? This sounded as if somebody had brought labour upon us, and as if this someone would therefore now be very sorry, that we had to finish this piece of work because of him.
This is the interesting in the use of “I’m sorry for you/Pole”: Turns out, that in Tanzania there doesn’t have to be someone who brought a certain situation upon you for them to say I’m sorry for you. There needn’t be someone who caused you a specific problem, or say, injury, for them to be sorry for you and say “pole”.
In a way, “pole” is just a way of saying “I feel with you” or “I can see your situation, I can and I am putting myself in your shoes and I understand how you feel”, maybe even “I suffer for you” – a bit like the German “Tut mir leid” or the danish “Det gør mig ondt” (= it hurts me) – however, it is notable, that danes or germans would never use these phrases in the context that Tanzanians would. They wouldn’t say, for instance, “it hurts me that you have to work” – after all this is something that hurts the one who is working – and not the one who observes someone else working.
Translating directly from danish, I would usually define of empathy as “the ability to live yourself into another persons situation” – and this is exactly what I think “Pole” is.
Simply put, Tanzanians express empathy every time they say “pole” to someone, which is one of my favorite things about Tanzanian culture. In turn, “Pole” also explains why (which didn’t make sense to me initially) is “Asante” (=thankyou), i.e. how could you answer “sorry” with “thanks”.
If I were to make an idiomatic translation of the commonly heard exchange og words: “Pole” and “Asante” I would translate it into: “I am now putting my self in your shoes” and “Thank you for placing yourself in my situation” – which is the best I can think of, even though it doesn’t sound as English.
Due to the fact that the basic translation of “Pole” and “Samahani” is “I’m sorry” for both words, some quite interesting situations can arise, when one hasn’t yet understood the above described nuances (on a note, this nuance may be even harder to understand for danes, as they don’t even have a way of translating the english “I’m sorry for you” (you cannot say “undskyld for dig” – makes no sense), no, the best the danes can do is “jeg er ked af set på dine vejne”, which basically translates into “I am sad on your behalf”, but lets be honest, we rarely, if ever, use this):
When we arrived in Tanzania more than a few of us would say “pole” if we bumped into someone or accidentally stepped on somebody’s foot on the daladala (local bus).
It turns out however, that this would make you mildly unsympathetic: Basically you’re stating “I place my self in you’re shoes and understand that it sucks that I stepped on you’re foot, but I’m going to tell you that I’m sorry”, i.e. “It sucks for you that I stepped on you’re foot, but honestly, I don’t care” or in short “it sucks to suck bro”. In other words, you’re plainly being an asshole.
When some locals on the daladala asked the mzungu (foreigner) girls of our group, if they wanted to marry, they would answer”Hapana, Pole”. Once again it turns out that this would make the girls sound unwillingly satisfied with them selves: While they meant “Sorry, but I can’t” they were really saying “I’m so sorry for you that you can’t have me”.
At the same time, it turns that there sometimes only is a very fine line between “samahani” and “pole”: What do you say to the beggar on the street: “Pole (- I’m sorry for you’re situation)” or “Samahani (- I’m sorry that I’m not giving you any money”). In this case I’m quite certain that “Pole” would just be too much – honestly, can you really “live yourself into” how that persons situation is?
As I spend time in Tanzania and talk to more and more locals my understanding of these to phrases is increasing, and already now I see all the situations, where I will want to say “pole”, but simply will now be able to find the right word in danish or english. In hungarian its slightly better: they have somewhat of an equivalent in “Bocsánat” (=Samahani) and Sajnálom (=Pole), however this “Sajnálom” is different from pole in that you could not really answer it with a “köszönöm” (=asante=thankyou) – well you could, but in most situations it would just be strange. Furthermore Hungarians don’t use “sajnálom” nearly as much as Tanzanians use “Pole”.
I would to elaborate on the Swahili use of “Karibu” (=welcome) and “hamna shida/ hakuna matata” (=no problem/no worries), not to mention the importance of the long list of greetings, however it would turn this post into a short book.
Obviously the above is based on my experiences after only one month (well almost one and hald now…) in Tanzania and I may become wiser on the subject of pole and samahani in the future, however I am utmost certain already, that “pole” represents a significant part of Tanzanian (or Swahili) culture, which no doubt is one of the things that make (East)Africa what many love so much.