A very popular expression in Uganda is “little by little.” Only in the Luganda language it is, “mpola-mpola.” My ear is not very exact linguistically, so what I tend to hear, “po-lump’-ula.” I think the correct way to say it is, “mm-po’-lumm-po’-la.” Little by little.

I kept hearing Ugandans use this phrase and finally I asked Alfred about it. Poor Alfred – he is a very good driver, an excellent translator, but no linguist at all. My continual barrage of language questions keep him stumped trying to express nuances of meaning throughout our long driving discussions between stops. When he explained mpolampola, he said quite firmly that I should not use it. He told what it meant, but he said it is a little impolite, and he could not  figure out how to express the reason it was impolite. I took that to mean it’s slang. So I dropped it for the time being, but the sound of it was very enticing.

Now, a day hadn’t gone by when I heard Alfred in discussion with another Ugandan, and what do you think he said? Mpola-mpola this, mpola-mpola that. I said to myself that if he can use it, surely I can use it. If it was good enough for Alfred, it was good enough for me, by golly!

So, at just the right moment, from time to time, I would drop it into the conversation. Alfred would wince a little, but I would just explain that if he could use it, surely I could use it…. Silly musungu!

Finally, while we were on Buvuma Island, I asked Bishop Waako to explain this word to me, hoping to unravel the mystery. He explained that yes, the word does mean “little by little,” and that is the overwhelming usage. However, it also suggests in certain contexts that a person is a little slow, perhaps like a ferry with one car missing (a little local humor there).

So now, as I think back on it, I am wondering in the late night hours just who I have insulted. Have I used it during a teaching session and managed to call all the pastors and leaders of the churches “a little slow?” Perhaps they think I am berating them for not picking up my material quickly enough, or perhaps they think I am suggesting that they are a banana shy of a whole bunch (sorry, I just can’t stop now).

I have discovered the true meaning of this wonderful little phrase, which used in the right context is extremely useful, in another, not so much. In fact, I have endeavored to teach you its meaning mpola-mpola, little by little. Oops, have I now insulted you also? I may lose sleep over this. My wife, Gail, who edits my posts, is telling me I am now dangerous.

It is a very enjoyable expression! I’ll try to control myself and only use it mpola-mpola.