Monday, December 31, 2007

Peace Corps is Good and Fish is Yummy: Two Years of Talking like You’re Three

Sitting in my thesis advisor’s cramped office at Brown, the requisite stacks of papers and esoteric book titles lending authenticity to the moment, I receive a nugget of wisdom for the future of my Latin American Studies:
“Why take Portuguese? Its just Spanish with a bad Russian accent.”
He was mostly joking, but I would learn he wasn’t entirely wrong, when I traveled to Cape Verde as a Peace Corps transfer. On the Dakar-Praia leg, armed only with half-forgotten Spanish and my Guinean French, I felt palpable relief as I eyed the flotation device instructions on the seatback in front of me:
No caso de emergência use-se o seu assento como aparelho de flutuação.
Oh. Okay. We can do this.
I flipped through the in-flight magazine and experienced a similar, understated glee.
Sure, there were the pretentious tails-on-the-c, the swiggley flourishes-atop-the-a, and the Latinate “m’s” at the ends of words. But these only denoted a language of unsurpassed classiness. Mostly it just looked like methodical doodling around the misspelled Spanish that could show up on any seventh grade exam.
And it should be just so: I had been accepted to this country because local staff thought that with good Spanish, I could learn Portuguese without training. Doubt faded. I thought about all the Cesaria Evora songs I would translate and send with a note of gratitude to my wise thesis advisor.
“A senhora gostaria de beber alguma coisa?”
The stunningly handsome flight attendant tried again. “A senhora não fala Português?”
The nasal humming and the laborious “sh” flustered me. This was not Spanish. Putin didn’t sound like that either. The seat cushion in front of me had lied. Everyone had lied!
“Vous voudrais boire quelque chose? Would you like something to drink?” he ran by me in most of the major languages spoken at the U.N.
I muttered something in French, Spanish and Malinke.
“Ok, so you want a coke?” he said, in English.
“Yeah,” I said. I didn’t ask for a refill.
If Cape Verde was in fact a former Slavic colony, this was going to prove more challenging than I had thought.
So Portuguese was not going to be a piece of cake. But my deflated ego was not the worst of it: it was being compelled to speak with the eloquence of a precocious three-year-old that was going to be the rub. Gracious people who had never learned a second language would have a hard time believing you weren’t as dumb as you sounded. Conversations with thoroughly fascinating people--who would manage to sense your subterranean non-dumbness—would still be relegated to subjects like food, hobbies, and the weather; politics or culture were simply too painful to broach without the proper tools.
Dona Malucy, the sweet Peace Corps nurse, asked me a my check up that first day if I liked Cape Verde. I wanted to tell her that despite being a few miles away from West Africa, it felt surreally like Latin America. Instead, I said “yes”. I could have added “me no like shots”, but the needle would have been in before I remembered the word for shot.
Reverting to this infantile state was even more excruciating, because my Malinke was only now entering puberty after a year in Guinea. The grueling regimen of gestures and monosyllabic responses was finally giving way to humor, ideas, multi-clause sentences, and the occasional comprehensible third party conversation. People would ask me if I brought them a present. I could say it died on the road. They would ask me if I woke up with four legs. I could say, “no, just two, you know I don’t have a boyfriend.” I could even sing a song about the name of my hoe (its name, like everyones’, was “hunger is bad.”) Not top 40 material, but triumphant nonetheless.
As it turned out, I got off easy: Portuguese was, in structure and vocab, quite similar to Spanish, once you learned to pick it out of the Russian that got spoken to you. The only problem was that, barring formal events, no one speaks Portuguese. Cape Verdeans speak Creole, the hybrid African-Portuguese language adapted by the slaves of multi-lingual origins brought here by the Portuguese from the late 15th century on.
Admittedly, Creole would be much easier to learn than Malinke. Malinke, with its mysterious excess of prepositions and its wholly foreign structure, was spoken by people who mostly knew no French. Thus progress was snail-like. Creole, on the other hand, is based overwhelmingly on Portuguese. Its structure is simple, its grammar rules fluid, and most Cape Verdeans also understand Portuguese. That means you can get direct translations and advance quickly. The large number of Portuguese and Brazilian immigrants who have picked it up is testament to that fact.
And yet a serious malaise prevented me from really undertaking to learn it. Portuguese got me by at work, I spoke English with my roommate at home, and even in the market and on buses people understood Portuguese. One year and three languages into my Peace Corps service, did I really need to talk like a three-year-old in a new one?
I did. Language is not just about communication. It is about good will. The Peace Corps is founded on the assumption that before you can do development work, you have to integrate: to integrate, you must gain people’s trust, get to know them well, learn the profound and subtle bits of their culture. All this depends not just on communicating effectively—for which creole is helpful--but on demonstrating a willingness to learn, for which Creole is essential.
This is one of Peace Corps’ most unique and worthwhile philosophies. In a world of aid organizations that rely on translators and barely get to know the communities they serve, it is bordering on revolutionary. And in a country like Cape Verde where tourism is fast becoming a major industry, it is more important than ever for aid workers to distinguish themselves from vacationers. Learning Creole is the best way to do this.
The difference in my interactions, now that I speak it, is overwhelming. Talking to Dona Malucy is just one of the benefits. Of course, knowing the word for shot does not necessarily get you out of them.


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