I always took for granted the profundity of being able to express myself in words without thinking longer than a few seconds. It never occurred to me that being able to say words like ‘demure’ ‘picturesque’ and ‘profound’, compressing so much meaning into them, was a sheer miracle in itself.
I never had to think twice before telling the girl at the fashion store that I’d prefer the coral and turquoise scarves to the beige and paisley ones. Not even in 2008, when I spent a year in Bogoro where over half the local people could only speak Hausa, was I unable to express myself. There was at least, Pidgin English, my saving grace. I could gesture to Hamza, the food trader at the market place, that I was not willing to pay more than 2000 naira for the basket of tomatoes and bowl of peppers. With the help of sign language smattered with Pidgin, he understood me, and everyone went home happy. I have always been an advocate for Pidgin English being made one of our National languages. People from all over the country speak and understand it, and next to English, it’s our major lingua franca.
But I digress. This is not my story today. Today I do not have Pidgin to save me. In fact, the only time I have heard Pidgin in the last 3weeks was on a train, from a random girl and her boyfriend. I almost found myself running to hug them, singing ‘Mama, oyoyo‘. The look in the guy’s face stopped me in my tracks, though, and I could only manage a ‘sorry’ before I found my way back to my seat. Then I closed my eyes and just listened to the music of their conversation, like I was 5 again and Mama was singing me a lullaby. Oh the joys of a sentence completely understood!
When I packed my bags and hopped on a plane to France, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that I could not speak French. I figured that since I knew ‘Bonjour‘, ‘Au revoir‘ and ‘Merci beaucoup‘, I would be fine. Besides, Ma Chérie was there. She would take me shopping and we would go virtually everywhere together. So there was no need to bother with too much French. How was I to know that Ma Chérie would get a job just 3 days after I arrived? Nice? No one told me that after 3 days, my on-demand translator was going to run off to a better paying job, leaving me out in the world to fend for myself. A world in which I instantly became deaf and dumb. My own dialect of sign language was instantly developed. The guy at Mandela’s funeral would be green with envy. Haha. Sign language should definitely be the lingua franca of the world, even with everyone speaking their own dialect. The only drawback was that it never took me past 2 sentences, at which point I became deaf and dumb again.
I always wondered how Mary Slessor, Livingstone, and other early missionaries and explorers communicated with the people they met in every new territory they visited. How did they manage to get my fore fathers to understand them, believe them and leave their age old traditions to follow new ones? At least the explorers had gifts which must have made their task less daunting – mirrors, Dane guns, alcohol, cloth.
I have…well…nothing. Ok, not exactly nothing. I have money in the accepted currency here. But all the Euros in my purse couldn’t start and keep a conversation with Nicolas who was giving me ride to Paris. Couldn’t tell him to take a break so I could use the bathroom, even when my bladder was going to burst. I could pay Cynthia for the shoes I was going to get for my mom, but I couldn’t pay her enough to get her to understand in what sizes and colours I needed them. Yes I paid for my train ticket to Paris, but I couldn’t pay the attendant to understand when I asked him if we had gone past our station, which almost happened again. As I sit at this Chinese Restaurant writing this, the bill for my food doesn’t cover a free translation of the conversations around me or the loud blast of music from the jukebox that’s trying to drive me crazy.
I am improving though. Soon as Ma Chérie got a job, I had to learn to say ‘Vous parlez Anglais?‘ and this has saved me on quite a number of occasions. But this too is limited. My expression is caged in a tight cell, and the claustrophobia is killing. I need to break free. To let go of the chains that keep me nodding and smiling when I mean to say ‘Can I have extra sugar with my coffee please?’
Today I have downloaded the Learn French app. Can’t believe I didn’t think of that till Titi mentioned it on her blog. Next week won’t meet me here. Next week I will be able to say ‘Est-ce qu’il y a un wagon restaurant dans ce train?’ without thinking longer than a minute.
I believe this.
Believe with me.