There is always something unnerving about being in a place where one does not speak the language. There is always some fear of miscommunication or being unable to express oneself when needed. Coming to Shirati, Tanzania, has really tested that fear in me. While many people here do speak English, the vast majority of the population is unable to speak English, and I, despite taking a Swahili class at Duke, am largely unable to speak and understand Swahili. This has made the last two weeks rather difficult but extremely rewarding.
Prior to this experience, I had never been to a country where I could not speak a language that local people would understand. I was naively unprepared for the difficulties that arise from having a language barrier, and it quickly became apparent that I would have to adapt. Everything was initially a challenge, and I was incredibly grateful to know three other Duke students who would be working with me. We all struggled to book hotel rooms and catch taxis together before we arrived in Shirati. Shirati provided a respite. I found myself in a bubble where most people spoke English since we were staying on a compound well accustomed to American visitors. The break, however, was short lived.
In order to start our project, the team needed to meet with many village leaders and create materials in Swahili. This made us dependent on translators which then made our project contingent on the availability and schedules of those translators. We quickly found ourselves bogged down by people being late or unavailable. Frustrations arose, and I am sure that we will continue to run into language-based obstacles. Despite this, we persevered and continued to make plans. The translators, when available, were incredibly helpful and facilitated conversations about schistosomiasis mass drug administrations and their importance to the community. We were able to hear village leaders speak about the need for treatment and education in their villages which affirmed that the work we will soon be doing is something that the region values and wants help implementing. We began to realize that our project was going to happen, even with the language barrier which made us happy. There was nothing wrong with not knowing Swahili, even though we would have had an easier time of making plans and executing them if one of us could. In the end, it did not hinder our ability to understand the community we wanted to assist, and I believe that it will not hinder us in the future.
The fear of the unknown is understandable, but the last two weeks have taught me that there is nothing wrong with the unknown when there are people to help you. Being dependent on other people to translate for us made us dependent but it has not taken away from our project at all. However, it has helped us make more friends and learn more Swahili, making the experience that much more special.