Yesterday the girls and I went to a wedding. A few days ago that was not the plan but then again rarely are there “plans” here. I do not try to make them often. Too much disappointment and frustration (on my rough days) but lots of opportunities and chances to learn about the culture (on my good days). I work really hard to “go with the flow” and “be” in the culture. But it is hard to always be in flux.
So back to yesterday. A good friend had invited me to this wedding and since it was a ndugu (a relative) of her relative that has the little girl who I have visited several times she said “I was wanted” to come. She made it pretty clear I needed to be there. The time conflicted with teaching English but after asking my students they happily agreed to move the time of class on Friday so I make it to the wedding and get my rusha roho on. This meant though that I had to teach class early in my wedding glam and that I had exactly 3 minutes to go home, get the girls (who had been clad in wedding attire by Jason-go J!), load our car with EVERYONE next door that was also heading to the wedding and be off. It was a crazy afternoon to say the least.
The wedding was pretty standard. As far as weddings here go. Tons of women wearing amazingly bright colors swaying and dancing together with children running everywhere. A group of men cheza dufu (play the drums and chant) using a PA system that may or may not work (depending on the moment). People crowded in and sharing limited real estate on the mats brought by neighbors for the occasion. The older boys standing around the perimeter and watching (although some just cannot resist and dance despite their need to be “cool”). Lots of greeting, buzz, people, color, noise, celebration.
But that really is not what I wanted to mention. At one point we were sitting on a mat and in between giving Evy her dinner, helping Anni open her fruit snacks, and wiping the sweat off my face with my head covering I was talking with 4 or 5 women sitting next to me. Well, I was trying to talk. I desperately tried to understand them, to share with them, to communicate. Now I could blame the loud music, constant interruptions, and lots of people talking fast but the truth is I felt like at times they were speaking Chinese. I have been studying, practicing, and trying to learn this language for 2 years but I was unable to keep up. They laughed at my mistakes and I wanted to cry. Not that I mind laughs at my expense. I like to get a good laugh and even if I didn’t I am used to it. Being the oddly tall chubby girl in Junior High will do that to you. No, yesterday I just wanted to speak and listen and understand.
Being “fluent.” That is what everyone asks. “So since you have been there a couple years and Kiswahili is easy to learn you are fluent right?” (insert snide comment by me…something like…”yes, learning a completely different language as an adult in addition to raising kids, working, and learning to live in a different culture is just a dream. totally.”)
Sure, I can buy and bargain for everything I need at the market and in one to one conversations or small groups I am usually able to understand and say what I want to say. Even if it means talking around something. I have enough vocabulary to explain what I mean and my friends are dear and do their best to decipher my botched Kiswahili. They love that I want to learn, even if that means I mess up. a lot. And, yes, I can “fake” it enough to impress some Wazungu tourists sitting next to us at a restaurant. I can pass some formal “assessments.” But does that mean I am fluent? I am not satisfied for sure and as my lack of ability to understand yesterday illustrates I still have a lot to learn. I guess this is a confessional of sorts and it got me really thinking about being able to speak. freely.
Sure, I have come a long way from incidents like this but I have so much farther to go. It is like finally reaching the top of a difficult and jagged mountain climb only to realize there is another one equally high and terrifying just beyond it. But I am learning more every week. My students (both wadogo and wakubwa) teach me so much and I have friends to practice with all day if I want. Insert here comment of how I should give myself time, be patient, be grateful, just appreciate the process. But screw that I just want to be able to understand, to be understood. like now.
Effortless communication is such a gift. I am talking about the the kind of language you can share without having to carefully roll around every statement in your head and then formulate a response. Verbal communication with those you share space with is precious. The stuff of humanity. Don’t take it for granted. Really, it is a special gift. One I was not aware of or grateful for until it was stripped away from me. Until it became the ONE thing I spend the most time trying to learn. Until it became the ONE thing that is the difference between just living here and really being a part of this place.
All this was rolling and clunking around in my head at the wedding. But then I just closed my eyes for a moment. I needed a minute of inner silence even if the chanting, blaring loud music, and hollering around me made real quiet an impossibility. I asked Him to help me not to be overwhelmed. To help me to still be a light. To be able to communicate gratefulness, love, and kindness even though I was struggling to feel any of those things. Then it hit me. Right there amidst 200 women all dancing and screaming, Evy pulling at my head covering, and a tarp whipping against my head: this is another amazing lesson my Creator has for me. His daughter. I must learn to sit with the silence. And maybe He brought me to this place because for me silence is not easy. I like to talk. No LOVE to talk. But maybe learning a new language is about much more than just learning to say what I want to say. Maybe it is about learning to listen first. Maybe it is about sharing and making mistakes and being willing to be the student. About being vulnerable. I have written about this many times but not being comfortable is a special gift that has allowed me to grow. Has given me more Grace and Forgiveness with myself and others. In that moment I felt special and loved and joyful. Restored. Free to not be good at everything. or at anything. Like my Father had a gift just for me. Even if it is not instant effortless language skills. And I said a silent prayer that the beautiful women around me would also sense and know and be bathed in the love of their Creator.