White noise. I’m hunched over the radio, but however close I lean to the receiver, I just hear white noise. I’ve got my eyes closed and I’m frowning. I’m actually trying to squint with my ears. It sounds like a mouse has crept into the microphone and is scrambling around in there. Some small creature, tormenting me with the thought of a miscommunication. Our radio operator takes the receiver. “Message copied, Mike Kilo One. Gweru Base out.” What message? He grins. I sigh. Communication here, as everywhere, is often challenging, occasionally frustrating, but always essential.
It’s not just about the technology, although it feels like I’m at its mercy sometimes. It’s not that I’m not grateful for the mobile phone network here in Zim. But when I’m balancing on a chair in the corner of the filing room trying desperately to send a message, it feels like a fickle friend. It’s not that I’m not grateful for the landline service, but when I finally manage to get through to my family after trying and trying and the line is cut suddenly, irretrievably, the cliff hanger conversations feel like a mixed blessing. But, it’s not about the technology. It’s about people.
I’ve been told that I’m fortunate that there are only two main tribal languages here in Zimbabwe. I’ve been told that I’m lucky that I don’t travel just a few miles down the road and find a new, mysterious dialect. But I feel like it doesn’t really matter how many languages you don’t speak. The confusion and the potential for isolation is the same. Still, I love to listen. I enjoy the new rhythms and the unfamiliar sounds. The soft, percussive clicks of the Ndebele tongue are like the sound of fingers gently tapping on wood. I listen like someone searching for secret, hollow places.
To say that my understanding of Shona is better than my understanding of Ndebele is not admitting much, but I can say at least that I’m an enthusiastic student. When I first arrived, I would push off from the shore with a few simple greetings and quickly find myself drowning in words, without finding any meaning to grasp onto to save myself. Now, I’m still floundering gracelessly, but just occasionally, I come up for air and it feels good to float, if only briefly.
Actually, it doesn’t always feel good! Because one of my self-appointed (and much loved) Shona teachers has been concentrating on the more colourful vernacular, I was able to catch a comment made in the office about my generously proportioned rear! I’m told here in Zim this is a compliment, although it’s a stretch to appreciate this. I would suggest that not everything translates! Like the other ‘compliment’ I received recently. I am, apparently, worth ten cows. It came with a proposal of marriage and I’m told it’s a good price. I promised to pass the offer on to my father, but I’m not sure how he’ll respond! Again, I would suggest that not everything translates…
Communication is challenging. It takes patience and grace. Mostly, I’m discovering, on the part of my new friends and colleagues. I’ve been accidently asking men how their husbands are in public. I’ve had people sit for a long time trying to explain some linguistic subtlety that I over simplify or misunderstand. Or remind me of words again, that I’ve forgotten, again. I’ve had people stand quietly for long minutes whilst I desperately search for words that are escaping me. Mira, mira. Wait, wait. Ndiri kufunga. I’m thinking.
But whether I’m puzzling over the radio, learning a new Shona word, chatting with a colleague in the office or speaking with a patient, I am constantly reminded how essential good communication is to our relationships and how important these relationships are to our work. Sometimes it feels like two slow steps forward, one shove back. Two small misunderstandings, one brief connection. It will never be perfect, never always right. But tiri kuedza. We’re all trying.