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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Communications 101

As an English speaking person you would think that living in an English speaking country would be easy and there would be few communication problems. Alas, we have learned the hard way that that is not true.  Almost on a daily basis, even after 10 months of living here, there are things that are said or done that I, for one, don’t understand. Much of it is language related and certainly customs and culture come into play.  Depending on the import of the situation, we are learning to react accordingly. When a miscommunication has to do with adhering to medications for Julius, or an issue at Michael’s project, we can get a bit frustrated.
We often are misunderstood, one has to assume, because of our accent, although it amuses us since we find British accents a lot harder to understand but they don't seem to have the same issues we have.
 I guess it’s just the cadence or timbre of our American accents. I have, many times, asked what seems to me a simple question, like “are there any tomatoes today?” or “is Eldoret your home?” and people just give me these blank stares like I’m from outer space, or they just smile and say “fine” assuming I  am asking them how they are. It could be that people don’t typically make small talk the way Americans presume one must so the actual meaning of the questions get lost.  Often the response I get when asking a simple question is just a laugh, or guffaw, which quickly makes me realize that I have been misunderstood because  I am not saying anything that funny.  The day I can make a joke that a Kenyan will understand will be a red letter day!
One time I was visiting with my friend Esther, whom I am pretty sure has not ever had an American for a friend, but who has been around other non Kenyans. We were walking and having  a conversation and she was listening intently as I told her a brief anecdote . Suddenly she grabbed my hand and pulled me to her, “my darling….there are things you say that I cannot understand. You must speak more slowly.” She laughed gaily and I just secretly rolled my eyes because this is how I feel about ½ the time!  
Liam and I laugh as we often  feel like we’re playing that game, “opposites day” because it seems as if every request or question I have is answered with  the opposite of what I meant . Yesterday, in fact, I was at the market and made a little small talk with the guy we buy vegetables from. He actually initiated it, asking, after greetings, how the weather was when I was travelling. I said, ‘oh it was so hot!” in my most expressive voice, and he responded, “so you were cold there?” I know this guy understands my English so I was a bit confused by his response and looked to Michael for clarification. He just shrugged his shoulders which is sometimes all you can do!  You might order red wine in a restaurant and end up with a beer; you might ask for your pants to be hemmed at the tailor and come back to find they’ve been taken in all around….
Not everyone has trouble with the American accent however. I can always tell if someone has been working for AMPATH or some other organization with a lot of Americans in it, because he/she tend to have no issues with our accent.  I have maybe two friends who are so used to the American accent that they don’t hesitate ever and never  look at me as if I came from outer space. They just continue on with the conversation which is somehow comforting. My friend Miriam, who is quite a bit younger than I, and works at Sally Test,  tends to do a lot of giggling when I am talking to her but I’m not sure if that is because of what I’m saying or how , the fact that I am uproariously funny, or rather that she is just a giggler. If she ever gives me that glazed look, which now I recognize as incomprehension, I ask her, “do you understand what I’m saying?” and she will answer me honestly. Michael uses their expression, “una elewa?” in order to get a straight answer from his workers.Like most people Kenyans want to give the impression that they understand but sometimes they don't!  It’s a bit like teaching ESL in the States used to be.
 There are also cultural norms, like greetings, that are rigid here, which we don’t truly understand.  We could never be confused with a true Kenyan, no doubt, because we do such bizarre things, like walk our dog on a leash (you should see the stares we get). Michael greets everyone he sees  and I have been told that “we don’t do that”. It’s not that people are not friendly,  because they are, but being Hoosiers, we are used to greeting or at least waving to everyone who comes across our path!
Although miscommunications can be frustrating and even humiliating, one must always remember that everyone here speaks at least 2 and probably 3-5 languages  ( there’s Kalejin, Nandi, Luo, Luya, Hindi, and others in this region) , and English may not be one of them. Any fluency beyond greetings in English is a sign of some level of education.  Despite the recent legislation (10 yrs. old) that all children must go to primary school and the language of instruction is in English , there is a large segment of the population that has not had the benefit of going to school. Sadly, it is not affordable for a lot of  people despite the fact that it is mandated. It is pretty obvious  when someone does not speak or has not learned much English, even on the street.
The cell phone is another interesting communication phenomenon here.  Everyone has a cell phone but that does not seem to make communication any easier for yours truly. In fact, I find the cell phone to be a block to my efforts to communicate because I often can’t understand a word anyone who is not speaking American English says on the phone. For one thing, they like to speak very loudly into the phone. Between the poor quality of my phone, their volume, the reception, and the accents, it is practically impossible. I have at least two friends that I really like to connect with whom I cannot talk to on the phone. I have to text them and always ask them to text me.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been on the phone listening with all my effort and then finally say, “ok, text me please. Sawa sawa.” And get off the phone thinking, “I have NO idea what she just said.” It’s crazy and has caused me a fair # of communication headaches!
Then of course there is our effort to speak KiSwahili. If you’ve ever learned another language you know that native speakers LOVE it when you use their language. Of course the risk is that they will speak to you like you are a native speaker and then you have to fake that you understand them…OR you just make a lot of mistakes and don’t get your message across at all. This happens quite frequently and sometimes it is no big deal. Sometimes you have to find someone who can translate, like when it has to do with buying medicine or paying a bill. Sometimes, you can just chat with someone in KiSwahili (at this point we can do this) and THINK you have gotten your point across because they will say “ Sawa sawa”, which means “it’s ok.” So you walk away satisfied that you have made this connection and that you have been able to communicate whatever it was you wanted to say.
 Recently Michael found a guy making baskets out in the country and they had a big chat about his making some baskets for us to collect recycling at the hospital. The entire time the guy (Joe Basket is what Michael calls him) was acting as if he knew exactly what Michael wanted. Michael even drew him a picture and they talked dimensions, but the results were quite different than what Michael had expected! We had a big laugh about that one.
Although I have not yet stopped getting blank stares usually they are from strangers with whom I interact. The people we know well , now will either stop us while talking or are used to the way we talk. So  we just keep shrugging our shoulders and laughing!  Tu na Elewa Sana Sasa!

the perfect basket for all occassions