For those of us who have grown up in one-language households and communities, the motivation to learn other languages can sometimes be difficult to find. For most of my life, English was my sole medium of thought, self-awareness and expression, education, friendship, understanding, work, play… in fact, nearly every aspect of my life that required reflection or interaction was possible only through expression in English. I learned some French in school but it was always a subject to study, a sort of theoretical knowledge base, and not really a tool I ever had much occasion to use. English was really good enough to communicate effectively with my family, friends, co-workers, and most everyone else I encountered in day-to-day life.
This changed when I moved to Chad.
There are more than a hundred local languages and distinct ethnic groups in Chad, and at least three of these languages are often used to find common ground in N’Djamena (Chadian Arabic from the North, N’Gumbay from the South, and French from the colonizers). Knowing any one of these languages will get you pretty far but in general it is not guaranteed that two people meeting on the street will necessarily have the same ‘go-to’ language. While the cultural and linguistic diversity in N’Djamena is certainly a beautiful and ornate feature in the patchwork of human anthropology, it can also be a practical challenge in the day-to-day. Admittedly I have only mastered a modest handful of useful phrases in various Chadian languages; however, I have thoroughly enjoyed the adventure of learning and the lessons go far beyond phonetics.
I have found many people in N’Djamena to be fiercely proud of their mother tongue, and I believe this is because each language carries with it a particular way of understanding, interpreting, and expressing someone’s experience in the world. Languages are intricately intertwined with identity, values, culture, and tradition… In this way, when I try and learn some basic phrases in somebody’s mother tongue I’m able to break the barrier of being a strange foreigner, and sometimes the set the foundations for a great relationship.
Unfortunately the language which allows me to do most of my communicating in Chad is also sometimes the source of this initial relationship barrier. In Chad, French is the mother tongue of hardly anybody. It’s a practical language. It’s a business and a social language that doesn't seem to be too deeply entrenched in anyone’s identity. French is still alive and well in N’Djamena largely because it works to provide a common denominator for various distinct ethnic communities (particularly across the south). It allows Chadians (and visiting Canadians) to have meaningful friendships among different ethnic groups. Through French, I am able to participate in the activities of my organization at work, express myself, get to know others, discuss interesting topics, and pass the evenings joking and laughing with my host family under the stars. French opens a world of expression, but it also carries the strong weight of a colonial history… perhaps especially coming from the mouth of a Nassara. In this way, sometimes my words come out tasting bitter sweet. For example, when I’m walking down the street I’m greeted with a lot of stares; often it’s a look of curiosity or confusion (that makes me feel a little like a strange and foreign animal in the zoo). I usually take advantage of this attention to pass on a pleasant greeting. A simple smile and “bonjour” can sometime crack a smile in return and make me a little more human in the eyes of the passer-by. But other times, despite a pleasant greeting, I receive a look that spells distrust and even disdain. It’s a burden I carry on behalf of the privileged who walked these streets before me.
Other times I choose to greet people in the local Arabic. Even for the southerners who may or may not speak Arabic, these basic greetings seem to be an integral part of Chadian culture. In such moments I greet my staring neighbours with “salam alekum” and the responses vary in a different sort of way. Some people are surprised to be greeted in a local language; some people are clearly amused; some people don’t even seem to register my words and simply respond in French; and some people really run with it, testing how far into an Arabic conversation I can get before I have to laugh and admit “Arab, shuia shuia!” …‘I only speak a tiny bit of Arabic!’
Arabic is also interesting because it’s a great example of how each language carries with it a particular worldview. For example, the basic greeting “Salam alekum” literally means “Peace be with you.” What a beautiful spirit to express to friends and strangers each time you meet. Then when you’re asked “Kikeif?” (how are you?) among the appropriate responses is “Al hamdoulilai!” or “Praise be to God!” which carries an implied, “I’m well.” And so it is that through the very structure of our language we engage in ancient cultural and religious traditions of how we see the world and how we ought to treat one another.
If I’m not the walking the streets, navigating the markets or riding in a taxi, I don’t have a lot of opportunities to learn or practice Arabic. However, with my host family I've been learning another local tongue. Generally my experience of language in a Moundang household has been a lesson in patience, discernment and true listening: patience because often the most appropriate time to ask for a translation is when all is said and done; discernment because there is a lot of conversation that happens that doesn't need to be translated at all; and true listening is about paying attention to all the levels of communication that happen in and around language, apart from the spoken word. Mostly I listen to the music of a conversation and the drama of expression and reaction. Mama, for example, is a particularly animated story teller when she’s speaking Moundang. She adds all sorts of sound effects and gestures, losing herself in the rich details and emotion of her story in a way that gets lost when she puts it into French. Rather than needing the details, I prefer to just sit back and listen as she tells her tale. At the end of it all, I may have no idea what happened in her day but I understand things that are more important. I understand about how she is feeling and I've been gifted with an expression of her charm and good-humour.
This is just one example of how I've adapted to life in Chad by learning to read contexts rather than listen to conversations. In every-day life this gets me pretty far, but it’s not foolproof. It’s easy to make the wrong assumption and respond in clear confusion. For example, one day I was with a friend in a crowded market surrounded by identical looking taxi-buses trying to find one going to a slightly obscure area of town. There are lots of predictable things about the unmarked taxi/bus system if you know what to look for, but we were admittedly a little lost. As we stood around taking in our options, a man (who by the way was busy attaching a second story of grain sacks to a precariously positioned roof rack on the top of the nearest taxi-bus) yelled something down at me. This is what I heard: “Eh! Chinois!” This may strike the average reader as a little bizarre but the oil industry has brought an influx of Chinese workers to Chad and I’m becoming pretty accustomed to my pasty complexion being mistaken for that of my Asian expat friends. In general when people greet me with a teasing “Ni Hao!” I tend to reply in good humour. This particular time I looked up at my new friend and hollered “Pas Chinois!” (I’m not Chinese!) At this point my Chadian friend laughed and explained that the bus attendant had actually spoken to me in Arabic, asking “Machi wa?” a sort of slang for “are you coming?” … at which point I realized how ridiculous my response must have sounded!
Whenever I get caught blindly unaware, I try to remember to laugh rather than be embarrassed. Last week for example, I went to my normal taxi stop. This is the beginning of the route and there are usually half a dozen cars parked at any given time. Someone has the job of standing watch of the cars, flagging down potential clients and directing riders to fill up the taxis one at a time. When a car is full, the driver is notified that his break is over and away we go. This particular day there was only one lonely taxi waiting so I thought I’d just hop in. The usual attendant greeted me and said something in Arabic that had the word “coffee” in it, pointing over to a small street vendor. I smiled, shook my head, and got in the taxi – supposing that he was joking with me that we should share a morning coffee together (which in all fairness does happen to me occasionally… likely as a consequence of a culture of hospitality and people’s curiosity at the young, single, Nassara girl… but I digress). As it turned out, my attendant friend was trying to tell me not to get in that taxi altogether because the driver was off having his morning coffee. Only when another taxi showed up and people started filling it up did I realize what had happened. My friend the attendant had been watching me all along to see when I’d clue in… We shared a little laugh, I switched taxis, and I still got to work :)
It happens quite often that Arabic speakers go out of their way to try and help me out, but I’m often unable to accept their good will and apologetically tell them that their advice is wasted on me because “Arab shuia shuia…” before going on my ignorant way to figure out whatever they were trying to tell me the hard way. Sometimes people are trying to tell me how much I should actually be paying for the taxi on a given route; sometimes they’re telling me I’ve missed my stop (which is sometimes the case); sometimes they’re telling me that the roads have been barricaded for a presidential convoy and I won’t be able to find a taxi at all; sometimes they’re trying to tell me where I can find this or that thing when their own little shop is out of stock; and sometimes they’re just trying to be friendly and ask me how I’m coping with the heat, how my family is, or whether I’m feeling healthy and well. Most of the time I leave these situations with a pretty clear understanding of their kindness and hospitality, a little bit indifferent about my lack of information, and regretting only that I’m helpless to express my gratitude or reciprocate their kindness.
When I get to work there are even more language challenges. A good deal of my tasks with MCC revolve around translation work between French and English. With the vocab I picked up from my Chadian hosts along with my high school French and a couple undergrad grammar courses buried deep in my back pocket, I've found myself in sink or swim situations time and again. A Chadian partner would be sitting across the table from my American supervisors… both understanding bits and pieces of the others language and myself in charge of filling in the gaps. In the beginning the partners were very patient with me, stopping to explain vocabulary that I was missing, and waiting for me to paraphrase my understanding to ensure we were on the same page. Now these meetings go much more smoothly as my language skills have improved, but our habits of pausing to clarify, check or explain things continue in each meeting. This is because when I’m translating, I am not just substituting words like an online translation algorithm. Even though I understand French, I’m still using all the listening skills from the rest of my day in order to really understand what the partner is telling me in light of cultural and religious contexts. Then my challenge is to articulate the same idea in my own words while maintaining (as much as possible) the integrity of the original speaker’s intended tone and connotation. It requires empathy to see the world through their eyes, and a deep respect for the speaker such that I can give voice to their thoughts even if I disagree with the idea that I am translating. It is absolutely my favourite job that I have taken on in my time with MCC. These meetings often go on for hours and at the end of it all, when there seems to be a sense of understanding and direction for the next phase of the project, I feel energized (despite translation fatigue) by the positive relationships and hope for change that comes with each project.
After nearly a year in N’Djamena, I’m no longer content to be a one language person. The different ways of understanding and expressing the world that I've learned here have inspired me to continue seeking new perspectives and creative outlets. It is hard to believe that I have only a few short weeks left in N’Djamena... Through friendship, culture, work and play, the lessons I have learned here are diverse, life-changing, subtle, and sometimes lost in translation. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as I start unpacking more of my experiences and prepare to transition back into Canadian life.
À bien tot!