“If You Liked It Then You Should’ve Paid Five Cows For It” and Other Misunderstandings

Early on in PST, my volunteer intake gathered around to discuss how things were going in our home-stays. To my host family, volunteers were old news, and as a result I was a bit spoiled in regards to cultural whiplash. However, a female volunteer expressed being uncomfortable that her host family had discussed how many cows to sell her for, announcing that they would sell her for five. Hearing the prospect of being sold, in tandem with some pretty pushy assertion of gender expectations, this was reasonably a cause for discomfort. However, come to find out, in the Tonga majority area of western Central Province, using cattle as a bride price isn’t an uncommon practice, much as engagement rings are common in western culture. Cattle are also often used as banks, so what her host family was trying to say was essentially “you look like a million bucks.” And so the train of cultural misunderstanding left the station, the hydra of languages reared its heads, and I, distracted by trying to come up with a snappy blog post title, began to mix metaphors.

Flash forward to the present day (July 19th, 2017), and miscommunication has only increased. As shown with the example of the five cows, communication is extremely multifaceted and complex, and we often take this for granted within our own cultural norms. Metaphorical show of hands, how many of you have gotten frustrated at a non-native English speaker’s inability to communicate to you, or even been frustrated at the cultural ineptitude of people from different areas in the states (cough, people standing on the walking side of the escalator in the metro)? Can’t they just learn? Coming from the opposite perspective, yes, we can, but chovu chovu (slowly). Communication has so many components: culture, language, social status, education, etc., it can be hard to navigate!

For example, I’ve been doing door-to-door surveys in an attempt to meet everyone in my community and feel out what things people think are most important. The time of day I conduct this has had the unexpected bonus of familiarizing me more with the village women, who were largely non-participatory during my community meetings. In one particular village, I’ve also been trying to scope out a counterpart to take with me to beekeeping workshop in September. The plan was to add a question in about learning to farm honey, gauge interest, and then see how much experience they had with bees (I knew there weren’t many beekeeper in my area, but sometimes people “hunt” for honey by harvesting from wild hives). Sounded simple enough.

Wrong. Almost every time I asked the added question “would you like to learn about farming honey?” I would get a weird look and a “nehi mwani” (no thanks). Keep in mind that people generally say yes to every question I ask about wanting to learn out of politeness (not great for quantitative data, but it opens up conversations). I started to get really confused, because honey is a great supplemental income and people love sweet stuff. So, I started prying, and kept getting the answer “kosi” (there are none). What?! I have seen bees in my village and know from a volunteer up the road that there have been swarms! Why do they think there are no bees? “Mulong’a nyitondu kosi” (because there are no trees). This is even more confusing, because we’re not in the woods, but this particular village isn’t short on trees, and I know for a fact that quite a few are preferred honeybee forage.

I eventually went home to my host dad to ask him in English, and got the same response: “we don’t have.” Being comfortable enough to argue with him, I said “no, you definitely do have!” But here’s the kicker, when I rephrased and used the word “mpuka” (bee) in lieu of “wuchi” (honey), I got a totally different response from him. Yes, bees usually swarm at the beginning of the rainy season, there used to be a wild hive down the road, and he’d be very interested in learning more about building a box. And, when I learned that, I went back to survey the rest of the village using the “mpuka” and got the same level of interest as my host dad, identifying a counterpart right away. 

Why was it so critical to talk about bees instead of honey? I have no freaking idea! But, I did realize a few other things. First, when talking to women, the answer was always no, because beekeeping is considered a male profession. By using the pronoun “enu” (you, which I meant as plural but can also be singular) it seemed to direct towards individuals instead of the whole household, so they said no due to that cultural norm. Second, the level of understanding of the environment is completely different than mine*. My area is largely considered not to have good trees, due to the larger prevalence of trees elsewhere in the district, and has even been used for reasoning as to why there are no wild animals here (hint: it most certainly is not). There was also an added level of misunderstanding from me in their answers, in that “kosi” could also mean “I don’t have,” depending on the sentence structure, meaning that they don’t currently keep bees, which I may have missed mulong’a nahoshang’a chilunda chanti chanti (because I suck at conversational Chilunda).

So, what started out as a disheartening experience (I was considering dropping out of the workshop), became a great learning experience for me, and is honestly the main reason I’m doing the GD survey at all. I’ve been able to pick up much better on the social dynamics of my villages, I’ve picked up some handy vocabulary, and I have figured out how to reword things to get the answers I need. 
For instance, I had the question “what do you like about your village?” which was super confusing to everyone and usually resulted in talking about livestock. After some trial and error, I found that explaining that I was because Peace Corps saw something in them, and how much I wanted to work with them, then asking them if they agreed before blindsiding them with “why?” I got some great responses. Aid and development work focuses on the negative so much, sometimes it’s important to explain “no, you’re doing good stuff, I want to know what it is!”

Am I the master of communication now? No; just the other day I accidentally implied that I would be starting a school at my house and was greeted the next afternoon with 20 kids while I was outside washing my underwear. But, I’m getting there! Chovu chovu. 

*This isn’t to imply that people in my community aren’t aware of environmental issues. Climate change isn’t just some far-off thing to them; it’s present in their lives. That being said, the type of awareness is different, and the lense with which natural resources are viewed is different. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s