Pole Sana – So Sorry

Pole (po-lay) – sorry; sana  (sah-nah) – so

They stole all the planks from your bridge? Pole!

You’d think that as a Canadian, people saying “’sorry” all the time wouldn’t bother me.  It would seem normal.

In Canada, it’s normal for us to apologize if we get too close to someone in a line, or if someone steps on our foot.  The slightest space infringement inspires an orgy of sorries.  Avoiding confrontation is the name of the game.

Here in Tanzania, sorry is used in a completely different way.  For me it’s like the British always asking “you okay?”  It never ceases to startle me; I interpret it as “oh my goodness, you look awful, are you alright?!” when in fact they are merely asking “how are you?”

Socket can't handle a cooker? Pole!

To me, “sorry” is an apology, an admission of guilt, no matter how misplaced!  Here it’s an expression of sympathy: I feel sorry for you.  It’s used in the most obnoxious way, usually when you’re just about ready to explode with frustration, your face is turning red, and you’re about to a) cry or b) start swearing violently.

Let me take a moment to go back to the Gambia.  A person hard at work in the fields is always greeted with a hearty “Jerejef!”, roughly equivalent to “thank you!” or “congrats!” In Canada we would say good work, good job, keep it up.  Here in Tanzania?  Pole sana.  So sorry about the work.

Jeregenjef! (the plural form) - Threshing peanut in the afternoon sun

What? Why are you sorry? Yes, indeed, Tanzanians feel sorry for people working, exercising, studying, traveling, and basically anything that requires effort*.

At least pole sana is also used to console people.  This is the case when anything is sad, annoying, frustrating or painful.  Stub your toe or hit your funny bone?  Pole sana.  Your dog died?  Pole sana.  Got fired?  Pole sana.  Perhaps it’s culture shock, but pole sana quickly becomes one of the most annoying phrases around.

Unfortunately, the only way to beat em is to join em.  It’s culturally acceptable to apologize when you see someone doing a good job, as if it’s an awful shame that they’re weeding their garden.  It’s also a great opportunity to be seriously sarcastic when someone’s whining, or when you just don’t care!

It’s the government’s fault we can’t get enough grass for our cows.  Pole sana.  It’s raining so I couldn’t answer my phone.  Pole sana.  The town didn’t pay its power bill, so we don’t have water for two weeks.  Pole #^$%ing sana!!!

That, my friends, is why VSO Volunteers in Tanzania use the phrase “pole sana”, possibly more than the average Tanzanian.

Boat sank? Pole sana.

*I have recently decided that since Tanzanian children work so incredibly hard, they are pretty much done with it by the age of 20, at which point many people simply relax – the solution is to have many children, the best way to get the work done! [I realize this sounds awfully judgemental. It’s a mostly sarcastic response to people’s constant cries of “Tanzanians are lazy”! This usually comes from Tanzanians. I always vehemently disagree. “We are inherently lazy” – now that is the worst, and most untrue, excuse I’ve ever heard.]

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  1. Tumwe

     /  May 12, 2013

    “Pole sana” with that probably bad experience in the use of pole, and as well “pole sana” for the hard work you have put into this research. The 1st “pole sana” is meant to feel sorry for u for the bad experience/cultural shock u have encountered, and the 2nd “pole sana” is meant to symphasize with you for probably the exhastion from the hard work u put into the work, here it is used as sort of a pep talk to sooth u or motivates u. I view it a rather a lack of enough words in swahili language to suit different situations, rather than entertainment of lazy habits..:)

    • Hi Tumwe, Of course I have a different view of the use of “pole” after spending over a year in Tanzania – at the beginning I was very annoyed by it but now, whenever something goes wrong, even back in Canada, I always say “sorry”… my friends often misunderstand, but I know it’s more like having the understanding to interpret words in different ways, rather than lacking words to say what you mean. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  2. Emanuel

     /  April 28, 2014

    “Pole sana” is a swahili language. Being a language clearly brand a group of people using it. In this case Tanzanians. The author rightly quote a number of good examples of different groups using different words for what might seems similar situation. However, the author failed to acknowledge the use of pole sana in those situation when present themselves in Tanzania. To me, this sound rather lack of maturity to embrace different cultures while travelling across borders. We travel to learn and experience new things…language being one of them. My sincere advice to people travelling to different part of the world is that, they should have an open mind and be ready to learn new things, in doing so one won’t be annoyed by a mere words like “pole sana”
    Pole sana has different meaning when used in different “context” here context matters alot if one has to get the meaning right. It is used to express sympathy, sorry, show some sort of concern to what someone is going through. Pole sana for someone working hard at field is never meant to be sorry for what he is going through. it is rather a way of showing respect and comforting or encouragement for what is been done!


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