Universal Languages

It seems that I can’t stop talking about Ethiopia. Maybe that was the plan all along. Maybe the thing about allowing this kind of travel to change a person has manifested itself in an ALL ETHIOPIA ALL THE TIME theme with me. Whatever it is, I am going with it.

On our travels we got to visit health posts where rural women can go for healthcare needs. Sometimes it’s in the form of a midwife who helps deliver babies (thus, reducing the number of fistulas that women can get) or in the form of a healthcare worker who ensures that children are getting vaccinated to fight preventable disease. We met two mothers who can come to the clinic for a wellness check up for their babies. That was where I learned two things about Ethiopian culture:

1. Women who keep their hair short do so because they are very busy and have lots to do, so taking time to fix their hair is a luxury. I felt foolish after asking that question because the women laughed a little after the translator told them what I wanted to know.

2. To say the word “yes” in Amharic is “awo” which sounds like “oww”. However, you can also say “yes” by sucking in air and making a noise that sounds like you’re surprised. I was completely fascinated when I noticed them doing this. At first I thought she hiccuped or just caught her breath. Sometimes, they did both the air sucking and added “awo” at the end of it.

Speaking of language, I had an interesting thing happen at the airport in Addis on our way home. A man from the Congo was going from person to person in line trying to get anyone to help him translate the paper written in English for customs. They give you this paper when you check in at the airlines so that you have it filled out before landing in the U.S. When he got to me he was saying something in his native language and then asked, pleadingly, “Francais?” and I shook my head and said, “No.” Next, he tried a language I actually do know. “Español?” That’s when I gleefully smiled at him and shouted, “Si! Si!”

For the rest of my life I will be confounded that a man walked up to me speaking something I didn’t understand. Swahili? Congolese? Lingala? I still don’t know! It has been years since I spoke any form of conversational Spanish but last week I translated English into Spanish for a man from the Congo while we were in Ethiopia.

If that’s not proof that I need to travel more often then I don’t know what is.

Two of the moms at the clinic remain some of my favorite from all of our visits and that could be for many reasons. One, they smiled nearly the whole time we spoke with them. It was something special to see such joy on their faces. With babies on their hips and the hot African sun beating down upon them, they were more than happy to share a part of their lives with strangers. Two, they both spoke softly and shyly to us and it made me lean into them to hear their words even though I didn’t understand their language. Not only did I listen to unfamiliar words, I found myself staring at their Orthodox Christian tattoos. It felt like we saw these markings on every woman we met. Whether it was on their foreheads, cheeks or their jawline I found it fascinating and was guilty of staring. I remember once while on a school visit in Pasadena, California that I saw a woman with these tattoos on the street and felt drawn to the mystery surrounding them much the same way. Both times I thought the same thing when I saw tattoos on their faces: that is beautiful.

Karen Walrond/ONE

It was while listening to this mother speak that I first heard the sharp intake of breath that made me ask one of our translators if she was saying “yes”. Her baby boy was playing with a ONE bracelet we had given him and, naturally, stuck it right in his mouth as he was teething, too. Having such “toys” is uncommon and he was distracted long enough to allow the moms who spoke English and the moms who spoke Amharic to have a discussion that was relayed through a translator.

Patience is required in these conversations. It reminded me of teaching children in the classroom and hoping that the academic language is properly received by the students. And somehow that thought morphed into the times I’ve spent with other young mothers of babies who don’t necessarily talk while waiting for the pediatrician to see our children as we sit in the waiting room. How we ask about names and ages and what they’re doing. Is your baby sitting up yet? Does he drool all the time? Does she say many words yet?

It was just like that. Only it took twice as long to get an answer through someone who had to change the language for us. But sitting with a mother in a foreign country really isn’t all that different at all. Somehow, by miraculous and mysterious powers, you completely understand one another.

Photo credits: ONE/Karen Walrond