Friday, March 23, 2007

How do you say…

Words now have a greater value in my day, and I listen with eagerness. My teammate, Johnny, speaks fluent Spanish and just strode up to the Chief of Chamane to ask him to help gather the local craftsmen together for an Art Festival. By the end of the year I hope to have similar interactions, able to work and plan with people. Meanwhile, my job leaves me with the paperwork side of organizing events and soliciting contributions.

While I would love to laugh at people's jokes, it is also essential to avoid pranks. Not only do people take advantage of stupid tourists, but my American translator Johnny is wholly unreliable for a serious answer. For example, I felt rather pleased with myself after the first meeting with the director, conducted in Portuguese, until Johnny decided to translate. All my previous correspondence and planning allowed me to recognize the director's requests: English classes, evening programs, Saturday events, fundraising partnerships. No surprises there, except for my surprise at my own comprehension. This changed when a little later, Johnny jeered, "so how are you going to manage Maria's Pedagogy classes?" as another one of his frequent teases. Of course I laughed at this absurd situation, but he persisted enough to leave me with a nagging doubt that I unwittingly nodded in agreement to a huge task. Forced to confront the very busy director, I slowly cobbled together some rambling sentences to explain my possible confusion. The director nodded in agreement that Johnny pulled a good prank. I revenged myself on my translator by shoving his face in the dirt. Sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Many people understand English, but their lack of practice makes them hesitant to speak. Instead it is often preferable to communicate in my awful Portuguese because I'm bold enough to butcher the language. Often I'm relieved by English teachers or students. However the translation process is slow, for a Mozambican is easily interrupted mid-sentence by whoever happens to show up. Professor Guente tends to break our conversations with a winning grin and ask questions while walking away. I try not to consider it rude that I can't finish my single sentence due to the ringing of his phone and the shuffling of documents and so on. I'm probably the third interruption from his initial work, and my presence here is one giant interruption. The relative tranquility of working from home without being asked for pens tempts me, but there I can't communicate with anybody, which creates a whole new set of problems. When I emerge, people ask me "where were you?" and proceed to give me last-minute notice of a meeting or activity which needs my immediate participation.

Sometimes I'm led to believe that my Portuguese is improving with leaps and bounds. I've met some very patient people who describe their lives and then listen to my descriptions, watch my hand gestures and wait for me to thumb through my dictionary. We somehow manage political discussions which raise many questions. I marvel at the practical knowledge of these self-sufficient farmers. On the other hand, I'm reminded of my weaknesses by the impatient people. They give me a pained expression when I say something with the wrong emphasis, the wrong pronunciation, the wrong tense or the wrong gender. A good way of ensuring some respect is to know the numbers, which reoccur when talking about time with the twenty-four hour clock and the currency which comes in millions. The numbers "dois" and "doze" sound similar at the best of times, but really confuse matters after a long list of other numbers.

With a vocabulary of only a few hundred words, the subtleties of the language still confound me. When friends say "we are together" as they depart, it sounds remarkably positive. Too bad the cellphone company uses this slogan on every billboard. Still, it reminds me to savor people's company, just as I'm reminded to count my blessings when people greet me with a "thank heavens for health." More visual reminders are the many graveyards and ruined buildings, but I don't share the Mozambican memory of struggle. Consequently, I don't miss people in the same way, for here it translates as "to have deep sentimental longings for." I also don't "love" anybody I've just met. Best of all, the word "cool" isn't popular here. Unfortunately the word "nice" became included. Words offer interesting clues about perceiving the world, but many cultural lessons are taught through demonstration, such as how to tie a capilana skirt and the correct etiquette for eating other people's cashew fruits (by leaving the nut on the ground). At the end of my second month, I re-learned all sorts of day-to-day doings.

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