Speaking English … in South Africa

DSC_0948Emmeline shares some of her early observations about English in South Africa:

So far during my time in South Africa I’ve gotten by just fine speaking only English. I know basic greetings and how-are-yous in Sotho and Zulu, but so many languages are spoken in my community that English is often used as a common tongue, plus its a big part of the South African school system.

Whether I always understand that English is another story. Not only do accents often get in the way of me understanding others and them understanding me, the lingo we use (prime example: me using the word lingo) impede communication as well. Most of the time I’m able to understand what someone means when they say something, but it certainly separates the fresh foreigners from the locals.

Here is a small sample of some of the English slang and vocabulary I’ve picked up in Soweto. Enjoy!

“How’s it?” – This is the typical South African greeting. If you ask “How’s it going?” people get thrown off.

“Is it?” – I have heard this used meaning anything from “really?” to “OK” or “yeah” in the American vernacular. This can be particularly puzzling to an American, like when you tell someone that another person is on their way and they answer “Is it?”. Also confusing when you tell someone your name and this is how they respond.

“Other Side” – If its not where you are, its likely on the other side. Sometimes this means another room, sometimes it means another building. Just try to follow where they point.

“Hectic” – If anything is at all busy, it is hectic.

“Robot” – Traffic light.

 “Now Now” – Every joke that can be made about African time has already been made. But if you say now, you really just mean sometime that day. If you mean right now, you say “now now”.

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Emily’s Top 10

Emily (on right) tries South African mangos for the first time.

Emily (on right) tries South African mangos for the first time.

Emily sums up much of the YAGM-experience in her list of 10 things:

I love making lists. On my desk, I currently have an old to-do list, a more up-to-date to-do list, a list of addresses, a list of people to whom I have sent postcards, and list of blog ideas. Sometimes, I will even make a to-do list filled with super easy things like “Eat breakfast” just so I can make a list and cross things off.

A couple of days ago, I started a list of the things I love about YAGM. While I have only shared my top 10 with you, there are approximately 732 other things I could add as well. 🙂

 10. YAGMs are constantly trying new foods.

I would have never thought that I would fall in love with a sandwich piled high with French fries, cheese, an egg, and two kinds of meat, but here I am, ordering kota (the sandwich I just described) almost every week. Many people are proud of me because I will try almost anything, as long as I’m not told exactly what it is until after I take the first bite. Food is not only a fun thing to try, but it is also an excellent way to connect with people and a community.

9. I can now appreciate simply “being.”

Yes, I am an American. Yes, I studied Business Finance and Accounting in college. Yes, I like to get stuff done and be super productive. Yes, I have finally realized that “getting stuff done” may not be the most important thing in life. Some of my favorite days have been “unproductive” in the American sense, but filled with wonderful conversation and time spent with others. Surprising, I know.

8. Being able to find comfort in the discomfort.

This is one that took me a long time to appreciate. Trust me, being a YAGM is usually anything but comfortable. I have been thrown into more uncomfortable situations than I can remember. However, I have noticed that those situations are the ones that I learn from and appreciate.

7. I have been forced out of my comfort zone.

To piggy-back off of the last point, YAGM has completely and totally forced me to go way outside of my comfort zone. Exhibit A: Small-town Minnesota girl (that’s me) living in the largest township in South Africa, with a population of over 1 million people (that’s Soweto). Enough said.

6. YAGM has taught me so much about myself.

Through all of the challenges, joys, random experiences, conversations, and simple everyday life, I have learned more about myself than I thought possible. I have learned more about how I see myself as a Christian, as a friend, as a white woman, as a privileged American, and especially as a part of the greater global community.

5. I have learned how to rely on others.

Throughout my whole life, I have been pretty independent. I have always been able to do things on my own without asking for much help. Well, if I tried to keep that same mindset as a YAGM, I probably would spend the whole year sitting in my room doing nothing. In order to simply live in a new country amongst a new community, asking for help is a must. To be honest, I was afraid to do so for the first couple of months. I got through, but since I have started asking for help, I have learned so much more than I ever could have imagined.

4. You can learn a new language.

The YAGM Southern Africa program is fairly unique in the fact that no language training is provided at the beginning of service. Why, you may ask? Well, between the 10 volunteers here, we are attempting to learn 6 different languages. Yep, 6! South Africa is a wonderfully diverse country, so naturally a lot of languages are spoken. For me, personally, language has become simply fascinating since I moved here. In my little neighborhood, I have met people that speak Zulu, Sotho, Venda, Tswana, and Xhosa as their first language. While this could create major confusion, people are incredibly helpful in translating things to English when I need it, while also trying to teach me some of the native languages.

3. I have made so many new friends.

Between my friends in my host community and my fellow YAGMs, I feel almost overwhelmed by the love surrounding me. First of all, in my host community, I have fellow volunteers, other co-workers, neighbors, and children of all ages that I now call my friends. Although they all know I will leave in only a few short months, they have all welcomed me into their lives and I will be forever grateful. Second, my fellow YAGM-SA family is truly my second family. When we are together, the air is filled with laughter, discussion, discernment, tears (of joy and heartache), and so much love. I cannot imagine going through this experience without them and I know we will stay friends forever.

2. YAGM makes you think.

Woah. The thinking that I have done. Seriously, I didn’t know my brain could handle all of these thoughts! Not only has my experience made me think about simple things like new foods and languages, but my time here has made me think about social justice, race issues, gender equality, economic justice, and more. I joke sometimes that ignorance really is bliss, because sometimes it is hard and frustrating to wrestle with these thoughts. However, I am extremely grateful for experiences that bring up these difficult thoughts, because now I feel the need and passion to work on these issues alongside my global brothers and sisters.

1. I now feel truly connected to the global church.

Seeing what YAGM has done here in South Africa as well as the impact made by fellow YAGMs around the world is absolutely incredible. I feel blessed to be a part of the greater church, but I feel even more blessed to be a part of God’s greater kingdom here on earth. I have seen God in so many unexpected places, and I now know that our Lord’s presence is truly being felt around the world.

Is that Zulu or Sotho?

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There are 11 official languages in South Africa. Emily shares some of her challenges and vulnerabilities in learning a new language or tow:

The title of this post displays a question that I have asked more times than I can remember. From my experience so far (three weeks already – woah!!), most people in my area speak either Zulu or Sotho (pronounced Soo-too). However, I am still fairly slow at recognizing when either language is being spoken. For the most part, the people at DAM [Diaconia AIDS Ministry] speak Sotho, so most of the time I can just assume that is what I am listening to. At the mall today, however, a salesperson started a conversation with me and tried to teach me how to say “How may I help you?” This was when my “go-to question” came out. Turns out, she was teaching me Sotho, which was a relief for me because that is what most people have been trying to teach me. Rather than attempt to learn both Sotho and Zulu, I think that one new language is enough for me. 🙂

In my short time here, I have become partly fascinated and partly annoyed with languages.  I am fascinated because I have sat in on so many conversations of which I had no idea what was being discussed. There have been many times when I have been the only person who doesn’t speak the language at all. I have had people try to teach me words, then chuckle when I try to pronounce them. I am also frustrated because I have noticed that I am literally the only person I know here that only speaks one language. Every South African I have met speaks their mother tongue as well as English. The German volunteers I work with speak German and English. I only speak English.

To add to that frustration (and fascination), the English I grew up with is not the same as what is spoken here. I have created a list of a few examples, which is both amusing and confusing for me and others:

-It’s not “I have to go to the bathroom,” it’s “I have to use the toilet.”
-It’s not “over there,” it’s “that side.”
-It’s not “six thirty,” it’s “half-past six.”
-They aren’t “diapers,” they are “nappies.”
-They aren’t “french fries,” they are “chips.”
-It’s not “pop,” it’s “cold drink.”
-It’s not a “sweatshirt,” it’s a “jersey.”

These language differences, whether between American English and South African English or between English and Sotho, are both barriers and opportunities. This experience is giving me the opportunity to learn a new language (or two?!) as well as discover new ways of communicating.

I’m hoping that my time here will open my eyes and ears to the multitude of languages around me. I pray that I become more comfortable with using Sotho in conversation, and that people continue to be patient with me as I learn. I also hope and pray that people don’t get annoyed with me as I continually ask whether they are speaking Zulu or Sotho.

Listen Deeply

DSC01020Jen writes about listening deeply in her new place:

Heerlikste Jesus, sterke Wereldheerser, koning op die hemeltroon, lof, dank en ere aan U, o Here, my hart se vreug mi siel se kroon….

You catch that? No? Me either. While I’m in the process of learning Afrikaans, everyday conversation is still way beyond me.

In case you were wondering, that was the first verse of the hymn “Beautiful Savior.” All of our church services are almost completely in Afrikaans. At first I was a little frustrated with the fact because it meant I had no idea what was going on for a good deal of the service. I have to take cues from everyone around me about when to stand up, sit down, sing, or when something else happens. Having no access to what was going on was tough until I began to listen to the messages behind the words.

Unplanned harmonies ring throughout the crowded chapel as people from all different walks of life come together to create one beautiful song of worship. I may not understand what the words mean but just listening to the sound of so many voices coming together as one speaks volumes about how God can bring people together in peace. The joy on people’s faces as they sing and greet one another speaks more than their words could say.

In some ways the language barrier has been a blessing.—it is forcing me to think with my heart instead of my head for once. Without the easiness of communication through language I have to listen deeply to intent rather than content to understand. Yet in slowing down enough to do so I feel like I am looking at church and life in a way I never have before: in paying attention to the very real joy and peace and community that church is meant to be all about.

The Language of Love

Katie reflects on her life in Bloemfontein:

“You see although I am not able to always understand exactly what Neo is saying, I can understand it in a different language. That language is the language of love.”

I want to give you a glimpse of my life here in Bloemfontein. Before I begin, I do want to say that I have the permission to tell you this story from my wonderful host mom, Mama Shoni. Yesterday, as I sat outside on the porch at Mama Shoni’s house thinking and looking at the view of the township of Manguang where I am living at right now, a little girl approaches me and sits right next to me on the porch.

This little girl’s name is Neo. She is a beautiful child. She is Mama Shoni’s granddaughter. She is about 7 years old and she loves to talk. The thing is… she only speaks Sesotho. She does know some English, but just the basics like hello, goodbye and few phrases. She is also Autistic. I honestly wouldn’t have known this until Mama told me. She goes to a school for children with disabilities called Pholoho which means ‘Rescue’. From what Mama Shoni told me, the school’s goal is to rescue these beautiful children from isolation and feeling alone to making them feel welcomed, accepted and feel like they belong in the community. What I will say though is that as I have gotten to know Neo, Autism does not define her. She is a normal young girl who loves to play and laugh like all the other kids. I also want to mention that she has a beautiful singing voice. She and I have become really good friends. It did not take her long to get use to me nor me to her. At the beginning of our friendship, she would always call me doctor. This is because all of her doctors are white so it is easy to understand why she would think that I am a doctor. It did take a while but now she has started calling me by my name. When she says it, you can tell that there is something special behind it.

You see although I am not able to always understand exactly what Neo is saying, I can understand it in a different language. That language is the language of love. This language can be understood anywhere regardless of where you are. It always warms my heart when I see the great big smile on her face and she says “Hello Katie” and I reply right back in that same language with “Hello Neo”. She has already won my heart and I know that she will be someone that I will never forget. She has been helping me understand why God has placed me here in the first place. Meeting her has really made my heart learn how to receive love as I give it. All I can tell you is that when I see this little girl, I see the face of Jesus.

Quiet!

Rachel with two new friends from Mabopane – at the Lutheran Theological Institute

YAGM participant Rachel shares a reflection of her beginnings in her community:

Quiet! by Rachel

“Be quiet!”  “Too Loud!” “Sit Down!”  “Quick!”

I would have never guessed that commands such as these would be the first few Tswana words and expressions that I would learn and perfect!   I spent my first week in Mabopnane working in a creche with my OWN classroom full of four year olds, so it makes sense!  Yup, just 10 adorable children yelling and hitting at each other, and one helpless “Mama Rachel.”  Yelling has never been a spiritual gift of mine; but it might soon be.  Although these days have been challenging, they have been generously scattered with blessings.

There are four lovely teachers at the center (one was gone for a week, hence my own classroom) and I have quickly grown to love them.  Last Friday, I watched them chatter away in Tswana, calculating and dividing their month’s salary.  Before putting her earnings in her bag, one teacher filled an envelope with her “ten percent for the Lord.”  She showed me the envelope and told me to copy down the verse that was printed on it:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and mind.  This is the first and the greatest commandment.  –Matthew 22:38”

What a testament, right?

Conversations about big issues in South Africa including HIV/AIDS, access to healthcare, and poverty have come in small but powerful bits.  I’m not sure how to share what I’ve gathered yet, but I look forward to continuing to acquire first-hand accounts of a broken and beautiful country.

I’m having a hard time getting used to the slower paced, ‘why worry today about what I can do tomorrow’ way of living.  My life as an RN did not prepare me very well!  I know that the people of South Africa have a lot to teach me about priorities and taking time to breathe it all in.  I have managed to get my internet set up due to the gracious help and transportation of my host family!  Realizing that internet is not available at the snap of my fingers was embarrassingly tough for me.  I’ve had to face the reality that I can’t depend on tangible affirmation that my family and friends are okay (ahem, Facebook).  I’ve been trusting that all is well, and hope that you have trusted the same about me!  (p.s. to all of my BFF’s… it’s sort of socially acceptable not to text someone back, since you pay for each message.  Yes!!)

A few other highlights:

– Singing and dancing in front of the congregation with the Youth Choir (luckily most of the words were in English, and I just tried catching on to the rest!)

-Judging a “beauty contest” at a local Primary School (It lasted five hours!)

-Eating with my hands (and of course, feeding the toddlers with my hands!)

-Explaining what “Gratitude” means (and demonstrating that the writing won’t come off of my arm!)

Each morning at the crech, one of the teachers says, “Fold your arms.  Close your eyes.”  And they all begin singing what is possibly the best prayer I have ever heard.  The words go:

“Father we thank you for the night.

And for the pleasant morning light.

For rest and food, and love we pray,

And others – make them well today.

Help us to do the things we should,

To be to others kind and good.

In all we do, in all we say,

To grow more lovely every day.”

The way that the sweet voices of the children harmonize with the power of the teacher’s chokes me up every time.  They think Mama Rachel’s watery eyes are funny.