When five American college students show up via a Mitsubishi 4×4 in the middle of a Ugandan village, it can certainly be an overwhelming experience for everyone involved. As we drove into the village—even before we had left the car—we were greeted by women dancing and singing and ululating (a high-pitched trill sound called sigalagala in Acholi). We were visiting a VSLA group in the Awach subcounty of Gulu District. (VSLA stands for Village Savings Loan Association – stay tuned for more about this!). The rest of the women in the group were sitting on a tarp on the ground but gestured for us to sit on chairs. While the five of us would have much preferred to sit with the women, it would have been rude not to sit in the chairs they had put out specifically for us.
First, Sandra, a GWED-G staff member and the Gulu district coordinator for the Gender Equality and Women Empowerment Project (GEWEP), addressed the group. Then, as we introduced ourselves to the group, we tried out the Acholi we had learned minutes before in the car ride, attempting, “An nyinga Maya. A ki America” (My name is Maya. I’m from America.). Our broken Acholi was met with laughter, but it did ease the awkwardness of our encounter.
As the VSLA session went on, we found ourselves exchanging awkward smiles with one of the women in the group followed by tentative hellos. Our conversation could have ended there, but luckily, she continued in English, “My name is Susan. How old are you?” After we found out that she was two years older than all of us, it seemed especially uncomfortable to sit above her in a chair and we moved to the tarp so we could continue talking more comfortably.
Susan was open, inclusive, and just really fun to talk to. She introduced us to Rosemary, baby Irene, and a few other women as well. We all laughed about our attempts to peel mangoes and learn Acholi. We explored small things: asking each other where we were from, what we liked, what our siblings were like, etc.
Somewhat unexpectedly, she asked whether both of our parents were alive. Susan then confided, “I didn’t even take my final school exam” and later we found out it was because both of her parents had died so she couldn’t afford the school fees. She dropped out of school, came home, and took care of her five younger siblings. Susan’s goal is to go back to school, and she expressed that although she is now pregnant, she hopes to return afterwards.
It was surprising to us that she shared that, especially so soon after meeting and considering our lighter discussion before. We didn’t know how to respond sensitively and we couldn’t fully relate to her situation either. Whatever we could have said, however fitting back home, may not have translated with the same sentiments that we hoped it would. Susan was very direct in telling her story and wasn’t looking for a sympathetic response from us. Yet, the experience still reminded us that we had a ways to go before we would have been able to respond in such a way at all.
While we were able to communicate with Susan because she spoke English, we haven’t always been so lucky. Although we have GWED-G staff to help translate between Acholi and English in the field—reducing the distance of the language barrier—translation would have created its own separation. If Susan hadn’t been able to speak English, we would not have been able to naturally progress into a conversation. While we could have exchanged the same information with a translator (and we do this in our field interviews), we would have lost some of the intimacy that comes from a one-on-one conversation.
We may not have faced a translation issue with Susan. But, in a sense, there was still a language barrier. The differences in our cultural backgrounds could have been reduced if we had an understanding of the nuances of Acholi and had been able to talk to Susan in her mother tongue.
So far, it hasn’t always been feasible to have an extended conversation with someone we meet at a field visit. So, being able to connect with Susan was especially meaningful. It was also, like many other experiences here in Gulu, thought provoking to consider within the larger contexts of language, translation, and communication.
– Jayati Verma and Maya Ramachandran