In Kiswahili there is a simple four-letter word that has far greater meaning than one would first think.
‘Pole’ (pronounced ‘po-lay’) is simply translated as ‘Sorry’, yet the actual meaning of this is a lot more complex. On a daily basis in East Africa and particularly in Tanzania, you will hear ‘pole’ being said approximately 246 time per day, in every manner of situation. Depending on the context ‘pole’ can mean anything from ‘I emphathise’, ‘I understand’ or ‘Oops!’
Within my first few days here, the brief meaning of this word was explained to me by a friend. Little did I know how much I would both hear it and use it on a daily basis, and just how far this word can actually reach. If anything it is probably the Kiswahili word that I have caught onto and made use of the most.
“Pole! Asante sana” I say to one of our lovely kitchen ladies (known affectionately as ‘Dadas’ which translates as sisters – that’s a whole other blog!) as I hand her my lunch tray, adding to her washing pile – ‘I’m sorry! Thank you for helping!’
“Pole na kazi!” says my driver as he walks with me to the van, meaning ‘I’m sorry you’ve been working.’ I do find it funny that this is said so often – why should you apologise for my having to work? However, this is said as empathy or understanding for my busy or long day at work and is used regularly. My natural (Scottish!) response to this is ‘Hamna shida/No problem’ but sometimes a simple ‘Asante/Thank You’ will suffice!
“Pole!” You hear one of the children say to another who has fallen while playing. .
“Pole, Lynsey.” One of my Kiswahili fluent colleagues says as I try a difficult Swahili phrase with mixed results – recognising my effort even when it is unsuccessful!
“Oh, pole!” The phrase comes up in the staffroom as a colleague explains that she has only had electricity for a matter of hours over the weekend. The empathetic, ‘I’m sorry for you’.
‘Pole’ is more than an ‘I’m sorry’ in the blame-taking, apologetic way we use it in English. It is empathetic and indicates placing yourself in the shoes of someone else. It is about expressing your understanding of someone else’s experience or letting them know that you care. It recognises unfamiliarity, exertion, and effort in spite of circumstance. It celebrates an honest attempt. It can show pity or something to be sorry for but also admiration, laden with respect.
Kiswahili makes apologising and empathy an art form!