I’ve got a confession to make: I suck at learning languages. Listening to me try to pick up a new language must create in a linguist the same visceral response as watching a public beheading. Eleven months into my service, I have only the most rudimentary grasp on the languages spoken in my area. My language teacher here in Ethiopia, god bless her, was actually reduced to tears of frustration at one point during our training. I’m that bad.
Sometimes, my profound communicatory incompetence leads merely to cute little blunders. For instance, a few months ago when I got a haircut, I couldn’t remember the word for haircut, so I told the barber that “You give very beautiful white person head.” I’m really hoping that one got lost in the translation. Or there’s the time I went to a restaurant in the capital and ordered a salad. Somehow, I blotched the order so badly that the waiter reappeared with a bowl of raw cow meat drizzled with melted butter. I’m not usually one to send back a meal, but in that case I was forced to make an exception.
Even the basics elude me sometime. To this day, I still confuse the numbers if I don’t think for a second before speaking. Imagine the servers surprise when, out to dinner with three friends recently, I insisted that we wanted a fresh round of ten beers. Or there’s the time I was haggling for a taxi and the driver told me the fare would be 30 birr. For my counteroffer, I accidently told him I’d go no higher than 50 birr. Didn’t take him long to agree to that.
Occasionally I cause such a colossal verbal trainwreck that I’m surprised I haven’t been kicked out of the country. A few months ago, I was meeting with a woman who had donated to a project I’m starting in my town. In an effort to complement a donor’s generosity and show off how well I’ve integrated into Ethiopian culture, I told her that she “stinks like a mother lion.” To be honest, I’m not even sure what I was trying to say there. It really just came out as a jumbled and seemingly random assortment of words. The donor, who speaks flawless English, translated for me what I had just told her and graciously suggested we stick with my native tounge for the rest of the conversation.
And then there are the times when people are talking to me and I haven’t the foggiest clue what they’re trying to convey. My counterpart told me to “watch out” and I thought I heard “come here” in Afan Oromo. So, taking a step forward, my foot was run over by a 400-pound donkey cart loaded with grain. Another instance occurred last night. The power was out, so my compound mate asked me in Amharic for a candle. Baffled by such a strange request, I disappeared into my room and emerged moments later with a pair of Men’s Size 11 hiking boots, as the words for candle and shoes are almost identical to my ignorant and untrained ear. She, like many of my ex-girlfriends, now thinks I’m either a poor listener or half retarded. Or both.
Despite my supreme language failures, things are moving along swimmingly. It’s actually hard to believe it, but my service is nearing its midpoint. Time is flying by. And my projects are coming together nicely. The library I’m opening in my town is proceeding remarkably smoothly, with over 3000 books donated to date and I just received a grant with which I’ll purchase a few thousand more. I’m working on ecotourism, water and sanitization, climate change and food security, and wood-saving stove projects as well. All are moving forward, albeit slowly at times.
Also, we put on a tree-planting in a forest rehabilitation site a couple weeks ago and got something like 20,000 seedlings in the ground in a program that brought together a bunch of rural farmers, military personnel, regional government officials, and civil society. It was inspirational, if not a bit strange, to see a guy in military fatigues, a man wearing business attire, and a barefoot old peasant farmer woman all helping one another to get a row of trees in the ground. After all the trees were planted, my counterpart gave a speech on the importance of environmental protection to the crowd and then asked me to say a few words to the 600 or so attendees. He’s wily like that; every time we attend a large ceremony or event, he always surprises me by asking me to give an impromptu speech. Although, it’s much easier now that he lets me do my speeches in English. We decided upon that path after I blotched a speech in Amharic to 5,000 high school student athletes when I told them they were clever like the wind and that they have pretty feet. Because, well, I suck at languages.