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The Wooden Box


I am restless in my plastic chair and

after half an hour of quietness I grab

my dictionary and try to construct

another sentence in Kiswahili.


I am with two of my colleagues at

Morogoro Paralegal Center and the

only language we can communicate in,

is Kiswahili. At this stage I only know

how to say who I am, where I come

from and what I work with. That is all.

But my colleagues already know who I

am and where I come from. What next?


If I want to get to know the people

around me I have to learn their

language. This is common knowledge,

but is easier said than done. As all

beginnings are difficult, and

sometimes painful, we know the reward

is coming later.


I have done it before, learned Danish when moving from Germany to Denmark, and learned Portuguese when working in Mozambique. This time, though, it seems to be more difficult than expected. The grammar is easy, they say, but how can I remember the words which do not remind me of anything I have heard before?


It took me about nine months to learn Kiswahili and to understand the pictures behind the words. During the time I had a couple of teachers who all worked very hard with me, but the breakthrough didn’t come till I understood that the language is a mirror of the people who speak it. Understanding someone also has to do with knowing the person, his or her mind-set and culture.


Two years later I am still in Morogoro. One day, we host official visitors in a small village nearby. I am with the women I work with, sitting on a wooden box while the guests of honour, the Swiss ambassador and his colleagues, are offered the white plastic chairs to rest on. The organization who brought the visitors are seated on the wooden benches, while the women and children from the village sit on grass mats on the ground not far from me.


I am able to translate the stories the women are telling to the official guests. Seated on the wooden box, I feel exactly in the middle between the plastic chair and the grass mat. I feel happy to be able to connect the different levels, the different worlds, the different realities with my translation. It is the language which is giving me the gift of connecting, and it is in moments like these I harvest the rewards of the hard work of learning the language.

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