Language as a barrier to intercultural effectiveness
My first critical reflection piece is going to be based on what I have mentioned numerous times in my blog as the largest barrier to my effectiveness: language. The language barrier has prevented me from becoming very involved in training sessions in rural communities and with young school students because these groups have very limited exposure to the English language (and obviously I also have limited experience with Kiswahili or individual tribal dialects). As an added bonus, I have been told numerous times that my accent is very thick, even for a Canadian.
The groups that I have the most difficulty communicating with are also the groups that I believe need the most attention. For HIV, I believe young children are the most vulnerable because they will determine the duration and severity of the epidemic in the years to come—they are the orphans, and they are also the ones who are likely not to know about safe sex practices. In terms of the rural communities, they also have less exposure to the services we are intending to relay, such as income generation, proper nutrition, and HIV screening. Therefore, I have chosen to examine this issue in further detail in hopes that I can offer my two cents to the people who would undoubtedly benefit the most.
I am glad that my placement was in such a rural part of Kenya because it has taught me how challenging it can be to perform asset-based rural development in areas with varying dialects. For example, I was very excited to help conduct a training session on alcohol dependence, but rendered incapable of speaking to the group because most we had no common language (those who spoke English could not understand my accent). Similar examples of this have happened numerous times in the past three months, and I have slowly adapted to accommodate to this inconvenience. A large part of my mandate area involves monitoring and evaluating projects at the grassroots level in the field. However, it has proven difficult for me to evaluate activities if I do not know what the discussion is even about.
Now that I have explained my predicament in detail, I will next discuss what I have learned from these difficulties and conclude with how I am using this new knowledge to weaken this barrier (as it is impossible to eliminate in a four month internship).
I was completely naïve (and partially mislead) about the communication issues between me and the citizens of the Bungoma area. I was informed that, ‘English is the language and everybody speaks it’. Maybe most people do speak English in urban areas such as Nairobi and Mombasa, but I failed to recognize that I was going to a very interior and traditional part of Kenya. In all the villages I have visited, residents have a working knowledge of English that is similar to my knowledge of French (the national language of Canada that Kenyans assume I can also speak). Namely, key phrases such as ‘How are you?’ and billboard words such as ‘welcome’ and ‘thank you’. My lack of fluency in Kiswahili has caused me to constantly be complacently harassed by children and end up lost in Kenya while drunk in a taxi. I have learned the meaning of mother tongue: the language your mother teaches you. This is different from the official language, which (in many African nations) is the mother tongue of past colonizing countries such as the UK or France. While all official communication—such as school and politics—is done in English, casual conversation is done in Kiswahili. To make matters even more difficult, tribal languages such as Kikuyu and Luhya re used amongst people from the same tribe (as is often the case in our field work with caregivers and farmers). It is only (bad) luck that my mother tongue is the same language as my official or cultural language. My parents do not speak Gaelic anymore, and my ancestors come from an English-speaking part of Scotland. This has left me content in my ignorance to learn a second language. Instead, the English of my people (Capers) has been so lazily butchered due to isolation that I have to restrain myself even to talk to friends from Ontario to avoid ridicule.
I have also learned from speaking to village gatherings that people cannot and should not learn to decipher my language or accent. People in town has heard enough of me to adequately understand the bulk of my message, but I start a clean slate each time I enter a village—something which I did not realize until a coworker enlightened me. He advised me to assume that the villagers have never heard a Canadian speak, each time I do a field visit. The responsibility of being understood rests solely on me, because I am speaking to a new group almost every time I speak in public and these people cannot be expected to decode me in five hours when it took me upwards of three months to decode their messages.
While I believe my English is obviously more ‘pure’ than theirs because it is my first (and only) language, I have chosen to speak more broken English that is commonly understood among the Kenyan people. For example, if I tell the group, “I am coming!” as I am leaving, they will all understand that I mean I am coming back momentarily; however, if I said, “I will be back”, they will often become confused. Thus, I have attempted to replicate the Kenyan accent in order to minimize the effect of my accent. This has worked well for me because I notice that more of my message is received as my accent becomes more Africanized.
To my disappointment, I have learned how limiting being unilingual is. I was very aware that thousands of dialects existed, but have always assumed that I could carefully fit in to a non-English culture. In fact, I have previously been very interested in doing a UN Peacekeeping tour with the Canadian Forces, but most missions and operations are located in countries that do not speak English as a first or second language. My difficulties encountered in Bungoma have left me with two viable options: do a tour in an English-speaking country or learn the local language.
This train of thought has further made me realize an issue in international development: a lack of support for areas that do not speak languages of developed countries. Countries who do not speak any languages common to developed countries are at risk of being disadvantaged because there is less communication between the two parties. If the developing country can not make their problems known to other countries, little assistance will be offered. This theory also applies, on a smaller scale, to work in Kenyan rural communities. Combined with other barriers such as poor road structure, a lack of common language between village residents and stakeholders decreases the access to services. Many people in Bungoma town (a more urbanized environment) have approached me with their concerns because they could adequately hold a conversation with me in English; however, I have not been addressed as often in the villages because I cannot partake in a proper conversation with those who are in need of assistance.
I became worried by these implications at the beginning of my internship, but I believe I have adapted well to deal with them accordingly. Most importantly, I have struggled to learn as much Kiswahili as possible in the three months I have been here. Even knowing basic phrases in the local dialects have helped me in my day-to-day activities such as transportation and casual conversation. It also has shown my commitment to addressing the concerns of the community. A coworker has stated that most interns do not attempt to learn the languages and are content with working from the office without conversing with the rural communities. He went on to say that people are very surprised and happy when they hear me speak Bukusu or Swahili to them because I am proving my interest and companionship with them. To quote Martin, a manual laborer from my compound, “If you speak Kiswahili, then we are together”.
The process I use to ensure I am being understood during workshops and trainings has become very systematic but has proven satisfactory. I still prefer to speak in English, so with a new group of people, I introduce myself in English; however, I take note to carefully notice their body language to gauge if I am being understood. If the group looks confused, I repeat my introduction in Swahili, apologize for my lack of fluency in Swahili, and sit down to allow another person to speak in Swahili for the training session. If the group seems to understand my English (and my accent), it becomes clear that I can continue speaking to the group with clear and simple English. Afterwards, a coworker translates any information he believes has been lost in my bastardized Atlantic Canadian English.
This coworker acts as an informal translator during the session—only translating important points or those which I ask for clarification on. During breaks (for tea, lunch, or one-on-one conversations) I try to speak to most people in attendance. I take another ‘informal translator’ with me so I appear approachable by all. Sometimes they end up asking me to give them 1 million shillings for their church, or a Canadian wife, but most times they merely make me aware of their lifestyle and the issues that concern them. As an M&E associate, speaking to these groups has proven to be the most important part of my job because I sometimes discover areas of concern that can go unaddressed. For example, I have discovered that there is no Kiswahili translation for the female anatomical feature called the hymen. In Swahili, a secondary school student asked me, “I heard that you can lose your virginity by riding a bicycle. Is this true? I don’t want to ride a bicycle if it is going to cause men to not want me”. I carefully held back my laughter and reassured her that you can only lose your virginity during sex, because virginity is a concept based on an action, as opposed to something material—then I realized she used virginity to mean both the act and the anatomy that is closely related to it. During the next session, we addressed this issue and the students understood the concept well (they no longer believe that bicycles create easy women).
I have found it hard to fit in to the office environment without being the centre of attention. The language people use in conversation is Swahili, only speaking English when I ask them what they are saying. Therefore, I try to converse with them (as often as possible) in the little Swahili I know. However, this has also made me the center of attention because they are often surprised that I have spoken in their language.
In conclusion, the only way to fully break down this cultural barrier is to learn Kiswahili in full. However, this is impossible in four months so I have shifted my focus to balance learning Kiswahili with the relatively lazy methods of communication with a translator because I would rather understand the concerns of the citizens fully as opposed to guesswork from my limited Swahili and tribal language proficiency.