“The wind carried off all their English…”

Immersion. This is a word I’ve been throwing around a lot lately. I have been counting myself very blessed for my placement with S.O.U.L. Foundation here in Kyabirwa village. Referred to as an “up-country” placement by the Ugandan fellows (it’s not really “up” from anything except Lake Victoria, which no one is placed in…but wouldn’t it be cool to work for an NGO underwater? What kind of development interventions could you conduct at the bottom of a lake? Maybe someone could work in a think-tank that was literally a tank full of thought…oops, tangent…), meaning any placement not in Kampala basically, our work requires a much deeper immersion in the local culture and day-to-day life than many GHC placements this year. I guess I should describe my work first (in brief, as I’ll have another blog post about that very soon I promise).

Viola and I are serving as Program & Advocacy Officers for S.O.U.L. Foundation, which right now essentially makes us research consultants. Once our research is complete, our program and advocacy work really begins. We are currently working with Women and local key informants in developing survey instruments for a full community assessment to analyze the barriers Women face when attempting to access maternal health care. This entails interviews and focus groups with the Women across S.O.U.L.’s numerous Women’s empowerment programs, as well as traditional birthing attendants (TBAs), Village Health Teams (VHTs), health practitioners and midwives, and health officials and local leaders at the district, sub-county and village level. We are attempting to uncover what really motivates Women to make the choices that they make regarding antenatal care and birthing options, be it in a local health center or with a TBA (not technically legal here in Uganda). More on all that soon.

The point is, in order to collect this data, we need to first earn the trust and respect of the community as a whole before we jump in and ask about some of the most sensitive topics you could ask someone about. So much of the past month (wow, today is actually the official 4 week mark since I landed in this incredible country) has been spent in extensive engagement with the Women, leaders, men and children of Kyabirwa and the surrounding villages (namely Buwenda, Namizi, and Bujagali). Visiting with the chicken and fish groups, sewing with the tailoring groups, hanging out with the local midwife between deliveries, cooking with families, meeting all the VHTs, introducing ourselves around, and really trying to become a part of the community. This has all be an extraordinary experience for both of us. But for me, there seems to be one little issue, which is complained about by many foreigners quite often, and is for the first time in my life a bit of an issue for me.

I don’t speak the same language as most of them.

Lusoga is a fascinating language – it’s very similar to Luganda (the most widely spoken language other than English in Uganda), and quite similar in many ways to Swahili, which I probably understand better than any language other than English (I’m putting my French skills down). I have the basic greetings down (wasuze otya, oli otya, osibe otya, sivi otya, gyebale, isokoweire, etc) (don’t take any of these spellings to be accurate). I can thank people for cooking (webale kufumba!), for having me over (webale kunchaza!), I can welcome people (tusangaire), order food (mpa omutiere, ebidandare, na matooke…emere awoma mama!), say it’s nice to meet them (insangaere okobona) and so on and so forth. All the basics. Vocab is starting to improve, numbers will come tomorrow I think, I’d love to get grammar going soon but that’s tough since it’s not a written language. Just need to set aside time to study more in depth.

Though I’ve learned something about myself: I’m sort of socially awkward. That’s not a new thing I’ve learned, I’ve always known that, and though it may surprise some, I have a tendency to be very shy and very quiet. When interacting with my fellow Basoga (people of the Lusoga-speaking kingdom – I’m counting myself as one of them because they all say that I am already simply by virtue of living here and learning the language), I’ve learned that if I can’t say something in Lusoga, my tendency is to not say anything at all. It’s a terrible habit that I am trying to break.

Many (most) meetings or visits with community members involve a lot of translation on Viola’s part (and she’s a native Luganda speaker trying to learn Lusoga as well). They say you can communicate a lot through body language, but regardless of how animated someone is, I never have a clue what anyone is saying when speaking Lusoga (apart from greetings and introductions, which are rarely topics of animated discussion). I feel like speaking English to non-English speakers is somehow rude, or paternalistic, or patronizing, or inappropriate, or makes me look and sound like just another mzungu touring the region with no cultural sensitivity.

But sitting in silence isn’t exactly winning me any points I don’t think.

And many understand more of what I say than I realize. When meeting with the VHTs last week, all of whom are predominantly Lusoga-speaking, Viola told me that though they studied it in school, “the wind carried off all their English.” I’m not sure if that was a direct translation or another wonderful Viola-ism, but it stuck with me. The language barrier exists, but I am learning Lusoga, and most have learned or are learning English, and that barrier is not a fortified wall between me and anyone here. There are never walls between any of us.

One month in, the honeymoon may be over, so in order to make this relationship work, we’re all going to have to learn to communicate. So I have an added challenge for myself going into the second month in Kyabirwa: I will not let the language barrier prevent me from connecting with people here. Connection is the most important building block of my life (hell, I have it tattooed on my leg), and connection is exactly what I need to do in order to earn the trust and respect of the beautiful people all around me. When GHC had us all take a strengths-finder assessment during training, the only strength I had that was stronger than “Connectedness” was “Learner.” Seems rather fitting. I am here to listen, I am here to learn, but I’m also here to speak. And speak I shall.

Ndi kwega mpola mpola…

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Learning from our fascinating Village Health Team. Mama Roman in the beanie is too cool for words, and makes the best mandaazi in the world – my brekky every morning.

 

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 My main ladies: Clementina, the local midwife (TBA), and her sister, who I traded knives with today because hers was a lot cooler.

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Tell me that’s not the coolest knife you’ve ever seen…the handle is made of melted jerrycan plastic…to me it looks like something out of The Evil Dead and I had to own it.

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