Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Language Barrier

So, the majority of Batswana understand and can speak English very well.  I have to say that this has contributed to my overall success within the country because even though I am learning the local language (Setswana), it’s assuring to be able to express myself in my native tongue when Setswana just isn’t working for me that day.

Teaching sexual reproductive health to a group of junior secondary students
That being said, the English that is spoken here is very much a conglomeration from around the world: from England to South Africa.  Many of the “isms” are infinitely disparate from the English I am familiar with and on days where I feel that I need to make my speech ingenuous, I am taken back when a youth in my PACT club utilizes a word like, “ameliorate” or “discordant”.  Often it seems that the smallest words are the ones that cause the most confusion; such as “bathroom” literally means the room in which you bathe, and not where the toilet is located.
Livingstone, Zambia. One of the nicer toilets and bathrooms I've seen in a while.
One day as I walked with a male friend of mine, I stated my discomfort at my “pants” being bunched at my knees.  He immediately turned his head away from me, and with eyes bulging asked me, “Do you need to go somewhere where you can find privacy?”  I said, “no, silly, I can just fix it right here”.  His protuberant eyes began scanning our surroundings frantically as he said, “No, Kitso, please not here, people will stare.”  I crunched my nose in confusion, trying to understand why I would need privacy to unroll the bottoms of my pants and why that would be a cause for public attention.  I did it anyway, and told him that we could continue on our way.  It wasn’t until later that evening, when I was explaining to my friend Lorato what had happened, that I learned that “pants” here means “underwear” and, essentially, my friend thought that I wanted to unbunch my underwear from my knees in the middle of square in my shopping village. This was the day I began to say “trousers” instead of “pants” and “pants” instead of “underwear”.

Though I see them and teach them things every day,
I feel as if the children in Gobojango are my best, most patient teachers!

When I first arrived to Botswana, I was having a couple drinks with people from South Africa.  I remember sitting there, listening to their stories and laughing on cue but really not understanding a single word that was being said.  A couple months ago, I met up with the same South Africans and found myself understanding and contributing to the conversation.  The stories consisted of “braai’s” (bar-be-ques) and “the boot and the bonnet of the bakkies” (the trunk and hood of a pickup truck).

When I speak to my friends and family, I find myself epitomizing the “Botswana-isms”: everything from the reactionary expressions to the hand gestures to the diction I choose.  For example, “Now now” implies a different time reference to “now” and “just that side” (followed by an ambiguous hand gesture similar to waving) could mean anywhere from a few kilometers away to the other side of the country.  Whenever I reference anything that’s small in size, I have to remind myself not to add “in-yana” to the end and something that’s “big” is a very different size than something that’s “big big”.  The running joke between my fellow PCVs and me is how weird all of us are going to be when we return Stateside. 
What is "normal" anyway?
Sometimes when the electricity is out, I amuse my neighbor children with light shows....

What’s unfortunate is that I’m now studying for the GRE.  Although I would love to utilize the new vocabulary I’m learning in an every-day setting, it’s proving to be increasingly difficult. I’ve managed to find a couple friends of mine within the country who are also studying for the GRE and willing to assist me in studying.  We text one another our neologisms… (Hah! You like how I did that?)

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