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.]