I think I would have to say that one of my biggest challenges here in Kibaha has been the language barrier. Even though this is an English Medium school most of the students and people speak Swahili and hardly speak English.
Swahili, however is not a completely foreign concept to me. It is an African language but a lot of the words have been brought in by both Arab and Indian settlers, some by Germans and some by the English. So, because of my Indian background along with some knowledge on Arabic, Swahili is not as alien to me as it may be to someone else. Yet it has still proven to be a great challenge.
For example, teaching English to students who do not speak English creates a catch 22 situation. How do you explain that something is a verb without using the word “verb” or a “doing word” ? How do you explain the concept of excretion or cellular respiration when they have all these complicated words in their book and no pictures ?You tend to act it out and draw a lot of pictures for them.
Sometimes, after spending about an hour with the kids, I find that my tongue actually hurts from speaking in English.It is no longer a means of communication but that which inhibits me from communicating. I generally have to speak slowly and subconsciously probably even go louder. When I find a student who can speak English and is able to have a basic conversation with me, a sense of relief really does overcome me.
However, in most classes there is at least one student who can speak English and when I am trying to explain something essential , I’ll ask her to make sure the class understands. I’ll also stop during class and ask them if they understand. After having been here for a month; I have been able to pick up on some Swahili and have tried to learn the basics of even trying to teach them such as asking them “Ume elewa?” “ Do you understand?” Sometimes they just stare at me or nod their head. Even if they nod their head I do wonder if they really do understand..
With the kids who can speak conversational English, I find that, without realizing, I start to overlook their English mistakes and do not correct them. Because what they know allows me not to struggle and is such an improvement over the others I tend to overlook the petty mistakes that are made. The technicalities of a language are so intricate and the fact that they get the subject, the verb , and the object right has become sufficient subconsciously.
However, it is not just their lacking in my language but also my lacking in theirs.Funnily enough, after class I was having lunch and mentioned the language challenge to my colleagues and said: “I even ask Umelewa? And still no response.” One of the girls then laughed and said that “Umelewa” means “Are you drunk?” But that extra gap in between the two words “Ume Elewa” would make it “ Do you understand?” I laughed. I would not have been surprised if I had gotten lazy in the pronunciation and was asking my class if they were drunk rather than if they understood. It made me realize how big this barrier was because they could not tell me I was saying something wrong while I thought I was speaking their language. Even when you think you are speaking their language, you may not be.
However, class is not the only challenge I face. In class, it is still doable as there is generally that one student who can be my translator when I need it. The language barrier also accounts for some of the daily frustrations that I deal with. Last Sunday, after coming back from my 6 am jog with the girls, I hoped for sunny side up eggs. I had been eating an omelet for the last week and just hoped for a different kind of egg that day. I do not have access to my own kitchen so I needed to ask someone. I showed the woman the concept of breaking the eggs and opening it up in two. I even got someone who spoke Swahili to explain it to her. She nodded her head and I started looking forward to my sunny side up. After 15 minutes, she came out with the plate and as I peered over to look at my eggs I saw that it was an omelet. I slumped in my chair. I felt defeated. I didn’t know what else I could have done to explain the concept and felt so helpless and frustrated at that point. It was not that much of a big deal but it was hard to think that I could not explain or relay such a simple concept.
It hasn’t all been downhill though. The attitude of the people here makes up for my lack of the language.They never laugh at me, sometimes with me but never at me. They are all kind and helpful. They can’t speak English and I can’t speak Swahili and I really can’t hold that against them because after all I am in their country and not them in mine. No matter what happens, I do get by. We try to speak in sign language or when I really get stuck I look up words in my dictionary and put a bunch of words together hoping they will make some sort of syntactic sense.
There are even women here who are not part of the school and are planting on campus ( and so I really cannot expect them to speak English) who will try and teach me Swahili. I’ll walk past them and say “Jambo, Habari?” which means “Hello , How are you?” and they will respond with “Mzuri” and that’s generally as far as my greetings go. But then they will say “Mambo?” which also means “How are things?” and I’ll smile and gesture I don’t understand and they’ll say to me “ Sema Mambo!” – “Say Mambo!” and so I’ll say “Mambo “and they’ll laugh. The next time I walk past they’ll say “Mzima” and again I’ll shrug and they’ll say “Sema Mzima!” (another form of a greeting) and just like that new words are added to my vocab everyday.
Further, the people here also never let me feel left out of a conversation. Yesterday, I attended an event that was basically a farewell for those who were going for the Holy Pilgrimage of Hajj. It started to pour and this lady brought me into this conversation with 2 other women. She was speaking in Swahili but I could tell that she was talking of how she had once gone on Hajj and it started to rain badly and how they continued through it. Her actions portrayed how they were shouting through it. I wondered if she or anyone else thought it was weird that I was there listening and attempting to be part of that conversation even though I did not understand the language. But her actions spoke for themselves: she kept holding my shoulder every 2 minutes like we do with our own friends when we’re trying to get their attention. Somehow she made me feel more part of the conversation then I could have attempted to be even if I spoke the language. She kept reminding me I was part of that conversation. I don’t know what her intention was but she made me feel like I was completely part of that conversation and it didn’t matter that I did not understand every word she said.
I am starting to push myself to learn the language because not only will it make my life easier, it will also allow me to access more of the students. I know that a lot of the students do not come to talk to me because they are shy or embarrassed that they cannot speak English. So just as some of them provide that relief for me when they speak English , maybe I can provide that relief for the kid who struggles to talk to me in English. I should at least try and meet them half way. This way I can not only help myself but also access more students and really ensure that they are understanding what I teach instead of ensuring if they are sober or not.