We’ve now been at site for two months: our duration at site has now grown longer than the time we spent in training. This feels like a milestone. Despite not having started any projects in earnest, I feel more and more like a veteran volunteer rather than a trainee. At this time I am still focusing on building relationships with neighbors and organizations in our town. As we become more integrated here in our semi-permanent home, I find that people are treating us more like neighbors and less like guests. We get lots of visitors to our house, lots of food (corn and beans, left on our doorstep if we’re not at home), and lots of invitations. This has got me thinking a lot recently about language and communication. During the process of applying to Peace Corps and preparing to come to Cape Verde, I was worried about language. This is the first time I have needed to use a second language to function in life or in work, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was anxious that my limited language ability would lead to misunderstandings that would spin out of control and negatively affect my relationships and my service. I had a mental picture of myself perpetually confused, in need, and with my sloppy attempts at communication only making me hostile enemies. I feared that language would isolate me.
I am pleased to report that language has not been the frightening obstacle that I feared. In fact, it’s been really fun to dive in and learn Kriolu. The process has been formidable, no doubt, and at times it has been exhausting, but for the most part it has been enjoyable. This is in no small part due to the fact that I’ve met a lot of extremely patient, gracious, and humorous Cape Verdeans who have not only tolerated my clumsy attempts at conversation but have repeated—and repeated, and repeated—their thoughts slowly and clearly to help me understand. Since day one, I have had fantastic language teachers, both formal and informal.
Pre-Service Training was super for language learning. Homestay gave me a lot of opportunity to practice speaking and a comfortable space to approach more nuanced, sometimes culturally sensitive, issues. Even coming home tired after a full day in the classroom, homestay forced me to function in Kriolu for several more hours. Sometimes it was hard just to follow the dinner making, house cleaning, news watching, or whatever else was going on. But it was often fun, thanks to our wonderful host family. My day-to-day experiences (all of them novel in some way at that time), language classes, and training sessions all provided me with lots of burning questions for my family. Our host mom, Guta, was a fantastic teacher. She spoke slowly, she told stories, she had no qualms holding one-sided conversations, she narrated mundane activities, and she was really good at devising alternate explanations of concepts I wasn’t catching.
Our Language and Culture Facilitator, Vanda, was also spectacular. Three days a week, we had an eight-hour day of language instruction in a group of three to five trainees with an LCF. We rotated through several LCFs over the course of training, but Vanda lived in our part of town so Adam and I relied on her especially and we became friends. Language classes usually started with admin and logistics, moved on to new vocabulary, and finished with going out in the community and asking some pretty random and socially awkward questions. For example, “During what time of year do you have the most illness? What kinds of sicknesses are common right now?” “What are your traditions when a new baby is born?” (Thankfully I ran into a pregnant person that day!!!) Or, “Tell me about the seasons of the year.” Fortunately, it was usually possible to stop and just shoot the breeze with a friendly person until the conversation veered somewhat near the assigned topic. Part of the LCF’s job was to walk us trainees through the day-to-day tasks of living in Cape Verde—how to take public transportation, how to shop and haggle at the market, how to make social visits. Vanda ruled. She put in a lot of time to help me and Adam with our community project, was open to all kinds of field trip requests, and had (has!) a great sense of humor. As I got more comfortable at language, we both got a kick out of her speaking at a rapid-fire pace just to see what I could understand.
My comfort with the language is largely thanks to the fact that Kriolu bears heavy relation to Spanish, which I took for much of elementary through high school. Much of the basic Kriolu vocabulary is very similar to Spanish and therefore was easy for me to remember. For instance, the verb know is konxi (“con-shee”) or sabe (“sah-bee”). These are used in the same sense as the Spanish verbs conocer (to know or meet a person or place) and saber (to know a concept, or be familiar with a person or place). Likewise, Kriolu has ten/teni (have), ten ki (need to), gosta (like, want), sta (am/are), ser (to be), and usa (use). We have sempre (always), nunka (none), algen (someone), and ningen (no one). Free ride! In Kriolu, you don’t conjugate verbs depending on subject and you don’t have a subjunctive tense. You also use context a great deal—the words this/that (keli/kela), here (li), there (la), other (otu) and thing (kuza) are very flexible. For me, this all meant I could verbalize many ideas early on, albeit crudely.
Also very early on, and probably most importantly, I learned that practicing language was my best tool for overcoming the inevitable cultural barriers, rather than a threat. This is where the kindness of strangers—and the ability to laugh at myself along with them—came in very handy. We learned on Day One of language training to always greet everyone with a “good morning” (bon dia), “good afternoon” (bo tarde), “how are you” (modi ki bu sta), or similar phrase. One option: Tudu kool? Fun! These greetings are hugely important in rural Santiago culture, and particularly for us as outsiders in a community where everyone else knows each other. Most of our neighbors seem to assume that foreigners won’t say hello. Once I do stop to say hello and shake hands, people are pleased and often want to chat about where I am from, how long I have been here, how long I am staying, whether I have any kids, their family who live in America, etc. And then we are friends. It’s an instant way of communicating that I am not a tourist, but a neighbor.
We also learned in training that when we see older people, we should ask for a bensu (blessing) by reaching out our hand, palm facing upwards, and saying, Nhu/Nha da-m bensu (Nhu for men, Nha for women). I can’t even describe how this act has opened doors for me! If you ask for a bensu, people smile, laugh, physically pull you towards them to talk, ask where you learned good manners, comment about your manners/appearance/language ability to whomever they are sitting with, and then spread the word that you are mansu (basically, a good egg). It’s due to this openness and friendliness that learning language and other aspects of Cape Verdean culture has been a joy.
Nonetheless, as we prepared to leave PST and head to our permanent site (two months ago now!!), my language-learning nerves bubbled up again. PST was, deliberately, very much a cocoon. Our host family provided for us, protected us, explained the most obvious of obvious things to us, forgave our bad manners and ignorance, and demonstrated an enormous amount of Santiago culture to us. It was fine that they laughed at us (a lot)… because it usually happened when they included us in some aspect of family life, such as gardening, visiting, cooking, pounding corn, or carrying water. As Adam and I got ready to head out on our own, I was worried that I would no longer have a Cape Verdean family to hang around. On evenings when the lights were out, there would be no family to sit with and tell jokes with. (More accurately: no family telling jokes to each other, then ask us after each one, “Did you get that?”… and laugh hysterically at us when we of course said, “No.”) Also, I was going to be thrown in to a Cape Verdean workplace for the first time. Up until swearing in, our interactions in Kriolu were heavily weighted towards the “Where is the bathroom” (Undi sta kaza de banho?), “This food is good” (Komida sta sabe), and “Right now I am washing clothes” (N sa ta bati ropa) side of life. Just when I felt I was getting the hang of it, I was nervous about having nobody to hold my hand.
At site, I’ve been lucky to find new language teachers. There is Kini, who is a biology stajiariu (intern) at INIDA. She is outgoing, talkative, and very motivated. She is not shy about using complicated language, but is also able to simplify things when I don’t understand. She is also not shy about correcting me. Most people ignore my mistakes or worse, pretend to understand; it’s really valuable to have a friend who corrects errors. Another person who does this is Elena, the shopkeeper at our loja (market). The shelves are all behind the counter, so we have to ask for items by name, or find some way to identify the items we don’t know the words for (pointing is really ineffective). Now that I realize she’s willing to teach me, I always make a point of asking for new words when I go to the shop.
All this said, some days are just bad language days. It’s like my brain works in slow motion and my tongue has been overdosed with Novocain. Literally, syllables get mixed up between thinking and speaking them. Sometimes, I can tell that people I am talking to don’t have the time or will to spell everything out for me, or are annoyed at my delayed comprehension. On top of that, I have identified some major communication hurdles that can pop up any time.
The first is that Cape Verdeans often revert to Portuguese when talking to foreigners. Oftentimes, I will greet someone and get back a very friendly—and very long—response in Portuguese. For about the first month here, this left me really stumped and kind of sad, because people obviously wanted to talk, but I just had to shake my head and say, N ka intendi (I don’t understand). I assumed that there were some people who I just could not comprehend. Then this happened while we were out with Vanda and she explained to the person that I did not speak Portuguese, only Kriolu. Since then, I’ve learned to expect Portuguese, and I now respond by saying, N ka ta papia Portugues. Por favor fala na Kriolu. (I do not speak Portuguese. Please speak in Kriolu.) The catch: this only works sometimes. Some people just don’t believe that a person who looks like me will speak Kriolu but not Portuguese or French (the second-most common foreign language here, I think). I’m now getting to the point where I can follow the line of the conversation enough to keep responding, sensibly, in Kriolu, in the hopes that the person will switch. Otherwise, I just politely end the conversation and remind myself to line up Portuguese tutoring soon.
The second reason why conversation is sometimes difficult is that my co-workers are highly educated, and Portuguese is the language of official business and academia. Therefore people are accustomed to using a lot of Portuguese words mixed into their Kriolu. Krioluguese, if you will. A third reason for the difficulty is that Cape Verdean Kriolu varies among several subgroups of islands. My workplace draws experts from all over the country, so I end up trying to communicate in Badiu (the dialect of Santiago) with a person who speaks San Padjudu (the dialect of the northern islands) or who speaks Kriolu from Fogo. This, too, is getting better, thankfully.
Above and beyond this inter-island diversity in language, there is astonishing diversity in language within Santiago. Santiago is pretty small: it is possible to travel end-to-end for a day trip to the beach. This is despite the mountainous terrain and sometimes poor-quality roads. Nonetheless, people living in communities only an hour or so apart from each other will use different vocabulary, different pronunciations, and different mannerisms in their speech. While sometimes frustrating, the diversity of language has been interesting. I get a lot of impromptu language lessons about the different words and pronunciations in various pockets of Santiago.
So day by day I am picking up new words and phrases, improving my comprehension, and smoothing out my accent. I am beginning to take for granted that I can understand what’s going on the majority of the time, even if I miss details and isolated words. There are still bad moments. As we get more integrated, people expect more of us. Sometimes I find myself awkwardly lost, clearly not grasping a joke, or worse, a subtlety. But all in all I have fewer frustrating language days. I talked to Vanda on the phone the other day and she joked that my Kriolu is better than hers. The best of compliments!