I’ve spent the past two weeks out on a motorbike with a translator visiting local Area Mechanics and villages in northern Malawi. Area Mechanics are local people trained by the government or NGO’s to repair boreholes in specific catchment areas. They’re supposed to operate like a small business in the area by charging communities set prices for borehole repairs.
Villagers at their AfriDev water pump, with my translator standing to the right.
So as I meet tons of new people in villages, I have to greet them in the local language of northern Malawi: Chitumbuka. This is not as simple a task as you may think. There’s a lot of protocol and nuances that have to be adhered to.
First of all you can’t greet with “Good-afternoon” if you are meeting someone for the first time.
Then you can’t say “How are you?” until you have said “Greetings” and waited for the response “thank you”(which is the word yewo- pronounced yay-wo).
You also can’t say “greetings” until the person you are talking to has sat down.
Then it helps if you’re not staring blankly at them if they say anything outside of your 7 word vocabulary.
Generally “yewo” works pretty well as a response to anything though. Even when speaking to someone with fluent English, there are “thank you’s” thrown in all sorts of seemingly uncalled for places, ex:
Jordan: It’s cold today.
Malawian: Yes, thank you. Have you travelled far?
Jordan: Yes I have, I’m very tired.
Malawian: Travelling is always tiring, thank you, thank you.
The lack of translation for the work “please” is another thing that myself and other English speakers have a hard time getting used to. At first is seems that Malawians are eternally rude whenever they’re asking for something. Once you do overcome the barrier of seeming rudeness and comply with a request, it’s usually followed by an enthusiastic string of “tawonga chomeni!” (thank you very much) There’s no word for please, but there’s two words for thank you!
In general, I’ve spent a lot of time in the village feeling pretty stupid and useless as people say things to me that I don’t understand. I have to wait for the translator to tell me what they said, if he’s not too busy laughing at the mistakes I’ve already made. This feeling is pretty motivating to learn more of the language. It’s also motivating that any attempt at speaking the language is usually welcomed with surprised joy and enthusiasm, even when they discover that you only know “pachoko” (a little bit)
I’ve also spent a lot of time falling in the mud on the motorbike. It’s the rainy season now, and that means that a major percentage of the roads/dirt paths in rural areas are more like mud slides. It’s almost inevitable that the back wheel of the bike will slip out sideways from under you as you fishtail all over the path, even when driving at the slowest most careful speeds. These falls are a frequent source of jokes and laughter during downtime for me and the translator. We’ve both taken spills while taking turns driving.
Bike after falling over while going up a treacherously muddy hill
Such are the joys of doing field research for EWB in Africa. 🙂
Other joys include: there not being any fuel available anywhere in the district, clutch cables breaking and having to ride long distances in only first or second gear, getting super sketchy clutch cable fixes in random tiny towns etc.