Thursday, March 31, 2011

Say what?

 Since Twi is the first language for Ghanaians from the Ashanti region, they will often lapse into it when they have trouble understanding something.  ICT training is a great example of when Twi works better than English. Most of the heads of the schools have had little experience with computers before now, which means that they often have trouble understanding the explanations I give them, even when I try to use plain English and lots of gestures.  That’s when Eugene will step in.  His explanations in Twi generally result in “Eureka!” moments that are much more rare when I’m the one doing the explaining.

Ghanaians also tend to speak in Twi when discussing matters of extreme importance or controversy, like how to fund this program going forward.  According to MCI’s website, “MCI accomplishes this [helping select cities become viable, sustainable ‘Millennium Cities’]  through a combination of research and policy analysis, and by working with local, domestic and international partners to stimulate economic and social development.”  My personal translation of this statement is that MCI doesn’t give money, they give knowledge and support.  But in a country where the GDP per capita is $1700, as compared to the $47,400 for the US (thanks, CIA World Factbook), the average of 300 cedis (~$200) needed monthly for the recurring costs of this program (electricity, Internet access, maintenance, and security) is no small sum.  Since the heads are the managers of their schools, it falls on their shoulders to figure out how to fund this program.
During this week of training, they’ve had many long conversations on the future of this S2S program, having long conversations in Twi about funding but also about future training and everything else under the sun.  Since I only speak a few words of Twi, I generally don’t pay much attention to these discussions.  But one particular comment caught my ear.  During this extended discussion of the program funding, one of the heads said something along the lines of:
“Blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah KMA blah blah blah blah Head Teachers meeting.”

I thought I had an inkling of what they were discussing, so I piped up with, “I’m not certain what you’re discussing, but if you’re talking about someone from KMA coming to the Head Teachers’ meeting and the Steering Committee meetings…” and proceeded to tell them what I had learned at a meeting at the Metro Office on this topic.  I had guessed correctly on what the head meant.

When I finished speaking, a few of the heads were astonished by my contribution to the discussion and asked me, “Do you speak Twi?  Did you understand what we were saying?”  For half a second, I considered telling them that I did just to see their reaction (since I found out later that they were also discussing my going-away party that they’re holding tomorrow morning at the end of the training), but I was honest and pointed out that I knew very little Twi, but hearing the words “KMA” and “Head Teachers’ meeting” helped me make a very educated guess.

Throughout this week, I’ve been reminded of how much of what we say is unspoken.  When Eugene steps in to explain an ICT topic, I have the advantage of knowing his topic, but his gestures and occasional English words would make it possible to follow the conversation even if I didn’t know.  Listening to someone’s tone of voice and watching their body language is a sure sign of what they’re really thinking, especially if the words don’t match the gestures.  Learning to read people better is a skill that I’ve had to develop as a survival skill in this very different culture.  I hope to carry it back with me when I end up on more familiar ground.

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