I moved to my post on September 19. The past three weeks have involved cleaning a house and making it my own, observing the health center I will be working with, holding babies, sweating profusely, and learning the dynamics of a Bariban greeting. The people of my village are very welcoming and kind. I live in a concrete house with a tin roof in a compound of other homes. My neighbors are a family, though I’m not entirely sure how they are all related. The photo to the right is of the road to my post.
One of my greatest challenges as of right now is communication. After nine weeks of slowly acquiring French skills and feeling moderately confident in my abilities, the realities of working in Africa again came swooping down with my ego firmly in its grasp. Bariba is the local language in my village and also the most widely spoken. The patterns and grammar rules of modern languages do not apply. It is a language learned through practice and careful listening. No books. No verb conjugation charts. Just humbling interactions that predictably end with laughter at both my surely-telling-confused expression, and my attempt to correctly place emphasis on sounds that are entirely foreign. I would say that 97.3% of my conversations solely in Bariban more closely resemble a serious, very animated, game of cross-cultural charades. The difference doesn’t stop with the spoken word, however, and transcends into gestures as well; meaning that as they try to explain what they’re saying via gesture, their inexhaustibly flailing arms are putting forth a vain effort.
Language preference seems to differ among the varying age groups. Little kids tend to know roughly two phrases in French: “Bonjour!” and “Ça va? Ça va.” After repeating this and echoing one another for about 11 minutes, they break out in giggles and nonsensical ramblings. The older kids, about 8-14 years old tend to speak French to me. They learn French at school and are eager to practice. The older teens and into the mid-twenties group usually attempts English. They start learning English in school at about 13. These conversations usually make it to “how are you?” Those in their late twenties to mid-thirties will speak French, as will the more educated elders. A majority of females over 15 and people over 40 can usually only speak Bariba. This is largely due to the fact that the education of females has not been among top priorities in Benin and older people have been out of school so long they forget their French skills. Then there are the Nigerian immigrants who speak English, well, Nigerian English. This means that on any given 10-minute walk, I am likely to have spoken three languages. Transitions between them vary, but by the time I get home, I am simply trying to establish which way is up.
I have found a tutor to work with me on my Bariba and try to listen to Bariba conversations and figure out what is being said. In order for me to be the least bit effective, I need to be able to communicate with people. I want to communicate with people. I want to know their favorite foods, what their father did for work, and how they live their lives and why. This last one is especially important for working to better the health of the community. When trying to counter malnutrition, prevent malaria, and stop the proliferation of HIV/AIDS, it is critical to know how they live their lives and what needs modification.
In the past week, I have learned three useful phrases in Bariba. Next week I will learn at least three more. And with time, persistence, and a sense of humor, I’ll be talking philosophy with the elders. Hopefully.