I thought I would be speaking and hearing French all day. After all, isn't French the official language of central and western Africa? Nope.
When I wake up in the morning in Couvent, I speak French with the other ex-pats and the Congolese staff. I walk 200 years to the hospital, pass about 40 people, and say "Bonjour" to every one. I walk into the hospital and am greeted over and over with "Bonjour, Dooglas!" (not a misprint) or "Bonjour, Doctor!" When I get to the office, my ex-pat co-worker and I speak French to each other, even though Sophie is from Sweden. Then we drive or walk to the Centres de Santé and Language Hell breaks out.
The patients only speak Swahili! So the Consultants take a history in Swahili, and we talk about it in French. We do the physical exam in Swahili and discuss it in French. After we arrive at a diagnosis in French, the Consultant explains to the patient in Swahili. The medical records and prescriptions are written in French and explained in Swahili.
If all this wasn't enough, some of the Consultants speak with such a strong accent that I strain to understand them. This is actually the hardest part of my language day.
After the daytime language nuttiness, I return home to Couvent and speak French to French people. Except they aren't really French. They're Belgian. Amazingly, I can now easily detect the difference in accents.
Couvent is actually home to an international staff. Other than the Belgian Horde, there are two Germans, a Swede, a Finn, a Lebanese, a Mauritanean, a Gabonese, a Sierra Leonean, and me, Mr. America. Crazier are our visitors. Last week had someone from Italy staying with us. Heavily Italian-accented French is both hilarious and nearly impossible for me to understand.
All in all, the language issue is not as bad as I had feared. The scary part is I believe my French is getting worse with time. The Congolese staff are too polite to ever correct me; they nod wisely as I utter nonsense. The ex-pats appear to understand when I'm saying and never correct me. If I had to guess, I would say I am getting less conversant in French the more I speak it. Perhaps if I stay mute for 6 months I'll be fluent when I return home.