Tales & images from life as me…

TIA Tales – communication

TIA Tales – Communication

As much as we try to communicate here – learning each other’s languages and being as clear as you can – the mix of different accents and different languages and cultures can cause all kinds of bizarre situations.

I know I mentioned before the story of my friend who was convinced her security guard had been in prison for ten years, when actually he had worked there (much to her relief!).

More recently – another friend of mine recently told her very lovely house worker (who has pretty great English) that she was leaving some mince in the sink to ‘thaw out’. She went out for the day with her husband and on the way back they fell to discussions of the burgers they would make when they got back. They were really looking forward to them and quite hungry by the time they got into the house but could not find the find anywhere. When they asked the house worker she responded ‘I did what you asked, I thaw out.’ – They found it in the bin. Throw out, being just too close to ‘thaw out’ in sound when you have a Tanzanian (or in my friend’s case, Aussie) accent. Shame!

I also mentioned in ‘learning the lingo’ that spelling is a pretty loose thing here, as long as you communicate your intended meaning in Swahili it doesn’t really matter, it’s primarily a spoken language in its origin so it makes sense – of course in English that isn’t quite the case. I’ve recently seen some cracking spelling errors to add to my catalogue of those mentioned so far. Here are a few favourite, recently spotted signs: ‘Stationary photocopying’ (ha ha, is there any other kind!?), ‘The best educasion you can get’ (oh dear!), ‘Byoutiful dulery’ (pretty far from the original!), ‘Come buisness class on the exacutive bus’ (hmm!).

But it’s not really about Tanzanians and English, what’s no doubt far more amusing is the English speakers learning Swahili. It’s not just about the words, you see, but also the flow, the order, the combinations, prefixes, suffixes and the cultural influences which are intertwined. I won’t go into it all here but did want to mention two little details.

First, the phrase ‘Pole sana’ – I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned it before to be honest. It quickly becomes something of a catch phrase around here. It means ‘very sorry’ and since there is often a lot to apologise for you hear it a lot! The important thing is how it is said. If said slowly, with a sincere expression it really does mean sorry and might be used if you are struggling with something or fall down, hurt yourself etc, but it is more commonly uttered as a throwaway comment accompanied by a shrug. Literal translation – ‘I couldn’t give a toss’. Or there’s the slightly sarcastic version, with a harsher tone that translates ‘shut up and get on with it’ and often comes out sounding more like ‘pole f#@!ing sana!’ (Or as we like to say PFS!). So I think I’ve mastered that one now.

The other thing that you quickly learn here is the greetings. There are literally about fifty options and each one requires a different response. It is not polite not to use at least one and commonly several are used. So your conversation might go a little something like this:

I give you respect.

I accept it, and to you.

How is your morning?

Good thank you. And yours?

Good. And how is your work?

Good. And yours?

Good. And how is your house?

Good. And your children?

I don’t have any.

What!? No children? But you are old. It is time for children now mama!

(This is generally the point where I extract myself!)

I was talking to a medical volunteer not so long ago and she mentioned that when she first started at the local hospital if there was an emergency she would go into her usual commanding tone and demand scalpels and all the dr stuff (think scene from ER but in an almost empty room that’s not that clean with nurses who just stare and don’t do anything else!). She said she couldn’t work out why they wouldn’t help and then discovered they all thought she was incredibly rude as she had not greeted anyone and was issuing orders! Now, no matter imminent death is, she comes into the room and asks each person how they are and what’s going on before demanding the right tools for the job!

So we have to watch our manners. We also have to be aware of our gestures. Even these can mean different things here. For example a low patting gesture here means slow down (no idea what it might mean anywhere else!), whilst the right hand bounced flat against the top of the left fist… well, try it. It’s definitely rude in England! Here it simply means ‘we’re full’ (eg if you want to park in that car park or hop on that bus).

A right indicator, whilst you might be forgiven for thinking it informs you that the car is going to turn right (it’s hardly ever used for that purpose!) will be telling you not to overtake as something is coming. And the double flash we use in England to let people go in front of us here means ‘get out of the bloody way I’m coming through’ – I learned that one the hard way!

Apparently a red light in Mwanza also means different things – to motorbikes and bicycles it means ‘no problem just go’ and to cars if it’s just turned red it means ‘go as fast as you can before your way is blocked by people coming the other way’ and then later it’s treated as a mere give way sign – brilliant!

So communication can be confusing. I guess it’s the same whenever you move out of your own culture. But I’m getting there. I actually managed to tell someone off in Swahili the other day – I was very proud of myself when a stream of Swahili came out and I achieved an apology. ‘Pole sana’, said the guy! Hmmm.


3 responses

  1. Hilly

    This is excellent, Mel, very funny and informative. Tres bien!

    June 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    • wow – that was the speediest reading ever! Thanks. You’ll be here to experience it all for yourself pretty soon! x

      June 11, 2012 at 12:02 pm

  2. Great article (very funny i might add), i think you get those language and culture barriers wherever you go! In England words can have multiple meanings but its how you say them that gives them there context

    June 11, 2012 at 4:19 pm

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