Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"I touch your feet"

To give you an idea on how I actually spend the hours of the day (that are not taken up with activities of daily living, which take about five times longer here than they do at home--because you have to do things like actually fetch water):

It's not easy trying to get a hospital open.  Mostly I've been meeting with government officials to get inspections, permissions, and registration, meeting with community leaders to get their input and buy in, and hiring staff, and making plans for training.  All of these things are harder and take more time in Africa.  This is partly because we have no running water (it's broken), no regular electricity, no decent roads, vehicles that have mechanical trouble more often than not, and very temperamental phone and internet.  Except for getting frustrated with losing my work on the internet from time to time, I don't actually miss any of these luxuries.  I have learned (in the past) to expect them.

And then there is the language barrier.  I spend at least an hour a day actively working on that hurdle and several other periods of time each day sorting out misunderstandings--usually ones that I have caused, either by using the wrong words or hearing the wrong words.  Sometimes these are pretty funny.  The first day I was here I accidentally asked a little girl if she had seen "my husband." (I meant to say "my son.")  She only giggled a little.  Years ago, I told a woman who had just delivered a baby that it was of utmost importance that she give the baby "my breast."  She actually had the grace to keep a totally straight face.  The other funny one I can think of took place on our second or third day.  It takes a little background explaining:  The common greeting to an elder here is "Shikamuu," which literally means "I touch your feet." The traditional response is "Marahaba," which translates roughly, "Delightful!"  It's sounds pretty heirarchical to Western ears, and I suppose it really is.  But people here are so accustomed to it that it seems they think little of it.  So on day two or three, a little girl greeted me while I was doing my morning Bible reading on the porch.  I was a little distracted.

"Shikamuu," she whispered.  (It's almost always whispered).

The right response didn't come to mind right away.  Knowing it is impolite to ignore this courteous greeting, I struggled for it a bit, and came up with the wrong word.  Remember, I'm supposed to say "Marahaba."  Instead, I said "Maharagwe."  She literally ran away so I wouldn't notice her giggling.

"Maharagwe" means "beans."  Close but no cigar.

I find this incident extremely amusing.  "I touch your feet." ....  "Beans."
I can't help laughing every time I think of it.  It's embarrassing enough that I have not yet had the courage to relate the story to anyone here.  I've been wondering if she will approach me and try again anytime soon, just to see if she can get the same silly response.  Actually, I've been thinking of saying "beans" on purpose just to make the kids laugh.  I don't know if they will get it that I'm doing it on purpose, and I don't want to embarrass them...  I'll let you know if it works.

The slowness of progress is partly because, well, you kind of have to be in Africa to understand.  If you've spent any time here, you know what I'm talking about.  Things just don't go as planned.  Ever.

But all in all, opening the hospital is going swimmingly.  We have gotten appropriate licenses and permissions and have gathered a few key people for the team. We are thankful to God.

Feel free to share any experiences of your own in botched communication!

Big T


  1. That is really funny! I like that the word you used was "beans." I have a friend tell me a story that she once signed, in ASL, that she was "horny." She meant to sign that she was "hungry!" The sign is very similar to hungry. Now, that was really embarrassing! Especially since she gets really hungry and is very dramatic- so you an imagine how her sign came across!!! hahahahaha! "beans!"-JRoss

  2. My funny experience was when eating out I wanted a glass of water but ended up asking for a wet kiss instead. vaso (glass) beso (kiss). They just laughed and smiled. Barbara Johnson

  3. Haha! I love hearing stories of communicating in other languages!! My worst was when I ordered "Grilled chest hair" instead of grilled chicken breast. Pretty funny. :)

    Love the stories.