Saturday, December 12, 2009

Breaking language barrier

Half-heartedly I set off to Kerala one November evening. Never mind if it’s one Indian state many volunteers want to visit, and in the cultural capital, Thrissur, at that. I’ve just been to another state a week ago to visit a state level network (SLN) of people living with HIV (PLHIVs) and observed their programs. Travelling again so soon, on a night train, to observe activities of yet another SLN was the last thing I wanted to do. One, despite being in A/C’d coach I spend most of the night just tossing and turning in my bunk. Two, the programs in every state and district are similar in nature. Three, the activities that I observed were in local languages. But the people in INP+ (the NGO where I’m placed as volunteer) guaranteed that I was not going to be a mere observer this time but would conduct orientation to district level network (DLN), as part of the leadership and management workshop. So off alone I went.

The train arrived in Thrissur railway station at 4:45 the following morning. Tired and half-asleep I got on a rickshaw, 5 minutes later I was looking at the façade of the shabby Elite Hotel. The equally tired and half-asleep front-desk officer roomed me in with someone named Rada I assumed was a participant. I knew immediately that there was a mistake; I was told beforehand I would share a room, but with the resource person from INP+. I decided not to protest and just settle it later. All I wanted was to lay my weary body in bed and take the longest nap possible before the session started at 9:30 that same morning.

My roomie was a Malayalese woman, about 50 years old, and spoke only Malayalam. She struck a conversation with me, cogitated who walked in and interrupted her sleep. By this time I was already cranky as I had repeatedly said “INP+” to assure her I came from a kindred organization. I motioned her to go to sleep, that I wanted to sleep too but she just went on. Of the many words she uttered I could only understand two. Did I speak Hindi? “No Hindi, only English”. Then she asked “Positive?” I answered in the negative which prompted her to talk more. I wondered if it would have assuaged her doubts if I said I was positive with HIV like her.

Finally, at almost 6 am, she spared me quiet time. I instantly drifted off to slumber only to be roused by knocks at the door at little past 7 am. Rada was up, had taken a shower and was fixing her sari, but still could not speak English; she motioned for me to get up and have breakfast.

Breakfast was served at the conference hall. I walked in a roomful of PLHIVs. Everyone looked at me with perplexed faces. I introduced myself as someone from INP+ but that didn’t take away the bafflement. I was famished but coyness preceded my desire to partake of the morning meal so I stepped outside and waited for Reshana, the coordinator. Finally she arrived and I was able to have breakfast. Though I positioned myself in the farthest nook I could feel occasional glances towards my direction.

My task that day was to orient the DLNs on computerized management information system (CMIS). I was briefed again who were the participants. They were new board members. All of them have the virus. Some of them have low levels of education, others have reached 10th standard plus one (finished high school and one year in college). Most of them do not speak English. Majority is computer illiterate. No computers in DLN offices. I knew some of these facts beforehand but Reshana qualified ‘new’ which meant they didn’t know anything about their roles and the functions of DLN at all.

I prepared a technical presentation; with this kind of participants there was no way they could understand what I was to talk about, much less appreciate. I was slated to present in the morning but requested Reshana to reschedule me later in the day as I had to revise my presentation to fit their need. It took two cups of coffee.

The workshop started an hour late. I had the opportunity to be introduced as a volunteer in INP+, not Indian, not positive, to about 30 men and women with HIV, of various ages, the youngest present being 5 years old.

I realized I wasn’t wearing my wristwatch. Rada had the key to our room. I approached her during tea break, talked and motioned that I needed it. There must be another meaning in Kerala when you make a semi-fist with index finger and thumb extended a little and act like unlocking a door, for it took her a minute and interpretations from the other PLHIVs to understand what I wanted. After the brief charade, I got the key and my watch. I decided to just keep the key in my pocket.

I went back to Rada and told her the key is in my pocket if she needed it. Again, she could not understand. So I asked her what is key in Malayalam – takol. I told her it will be in my pocket fingering the back pocket of my jeans, which she said is the keshayil. Glad to make progress, I told her, ‘The takol is in my keshayil.”

The other PLHIVs, by this time no longer puzzled who this stranger was, watched us with amusement and took notice of my earnestness to learn their language. Joseph, a SLN officer who could speak English well, taught me to complete the sentence in Malayalam, but demanded that I also taught them Filipino. So I wrote it on the board and that broke the ice.

The key is in my pocket.
Takol enti keshayil annu. (Malayalam)
Ang susi ay nasa aking bulsa.

When I did my presentation, Reshana acted as my interpreter. I deliberately shortened my sentences so she would not be lost in her translation. I was lost in hers though. I sensed she told them more than I did, but it was alright. My apprehension was that they would not get the one joke I said to keep them awake. Luckily, they did after the translation. Call that delayed gratification.

After my presentation the PLHIVs were more at ease with me and I with them. They spent most of their breaks gathering around me teaching me Malayalam and me teaching them English. I could absorb only so much that I requested they taught me just ten words a day. The language lesson was ended with Rada cupping her hands on my face and said something in Malayalam later translated to English for me as “Your face is beautiful” she said. Another delayed gratification.


Anonymous オテモヤン said...

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4:47 AM  

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