I’ve now been in Congo – mostly – since January 2009. More than 4.5 years. What have I learned in that time? So, so much.
But one thing I have not learned nearly as much as I should have is French. In fact, it’s kind of embarassing how little French I speak. And even I wonder sometimes how I manage to not only live here, but run offices and manage staff and keep entire programs going! It’s a combination of having very good staff that speak English and depending on the patience of others.
Many people would imagine that the most difficult part of traveling or living in countries where you don’t speak the language would be when you need something that you can’t explain. And sure, that’s annoying but not really as stressful as you might think. If you are already in need of something and are at the mercy of others, humiliating yourself with a little sign language is no big deal. In fact, it often endears you to people who find your situation a bit pathetic and/or amusing, and are willing to help out. If you are really desperate, if something is really wrong, people will know from your body language and tone, and most do their best to assist.
It helps that in Congo, most people don't learn French as a first language, or even a second. French is the language of secondary school and government. The vast majority of kids don't learn French until school (if they go at all). At home, people speak their local language(s) and use Swahili for trading. It's not uncommon for people to speak four or five languages. For this reason, generally, people are very forgiving of bad French and flailing hand gestures. Sign language and miming is perfectly acceptable for "crazy muzungu goofing around and photo taking" type activity.
When it comes down to it, the most frustrating part of not speaking the language is when I need to stand up for myself. Standing up to police who have pulled me over for no reason, in meetings with officials who are pushing their weight around, to staff who have disobeyed instructions… in those occasions sign language and fumbling just makes you look like a moron. That’s the last thing you want.
The other morning, the police stopped me at an intersection. Why, you ask? It’s Congo, friend. That question does not apply. The event that led up to it was me stopping at a red light, while a minibus careened from behind me, into the other lane around me and shot right through the intersection even after cars had started going the other direction. Clearly, this meant I had to be stopped, told to back up because I was too close to the line of the light, and instructed to roll down my window and give the police a bottle of water and money.
In times like this, there are SO many choice things I want to say. I want to be logical and cutting. Angry and sarcastic. I want to put them in their place and point out the ineptitude and ridiculousness.
Instead I just had to point to the minibus speeding away and say “Minibus? Why? Why? What is that? Why not him?”
Admittedly, my French is better if I have a little prep time, I’m not flustered and angry, and I’m not on my way to my 7th straight day of meetings with the government without having a cup of coffee. But still.
Sometimes, when I consider that I have been able to successfully complete large and complex projects here in Congo for the past three years, I wonder how amazingly productive and effective I would be if I did speak French. I daydream about the heights of conservation impact I’d reach and multitude of outcomes I’d be delivering every day!
Hmm… Perhaps, though, that’s a good reason not to learn French? I mean, what if I suddenly became fluent and was no better at my job than I am now? Now that would be disappointing. Yes, maybe I’d better add that to my list of excuses NOT to take lessons… along with laziness, too much travel, not enough time. One really can’t have enough excuses to not do something one really should do…