Friends and Money
We were only two months into our time in the Gambia when it happened. “Amuma xarit! Amuma xarit!” We thought she was yelling, “I don’t have any money” at the man following us who eventually turned away. Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), Megan had mixed up two similar-sounding words. “Xaalis” is what she meant; it’s the word that means money in Wolof, but “xarit” means friend. She was yelling “I have no friends!” at the man. No wonder he left us alone.
Learning the language seemed like the best way to navigate our six months in the Gambia. But cross-cultural communication can get confused, especially in the heat of the moment. It wasn’t the first time we made mistakes, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last in our time in Banjul.
There were highlights too. Towards the end of our stay, Megan and I had the privilege of holding focus groups of residents in the city of Banjul as part of our senior thesis research projects, mine was in applied anthropology. To my utter astonishment, I could understand most of what was being said by the Gambians who participated. Speaking the language made me feel connected to the country that was hosting me…less like an intruder and more like a part of the community. Being able to converse with people in Wolof was like meeting them on their turf, even though most people I met in the Gambia spoke multiple languages due to the regions’ diverse ethnic groups.
Most of our mix-ups were taken in stride, and we never ever confused the words for money and friends again. My time learning Wolof and using it in the real world fueled my love of language and communications. This small instance of cross-cultural miscommunication around money and friends during my time in West Africa is something I carry with me and influences my work.
Even when people speak the same language, miscommunication occurs. As communications professionals, we are expected to understand nuance and have a working knowledge of cultural norms. Even a small misstep can follow you for years. It’s crucial to make sure what you’re saying can’t be twisted to serve or sound like it is serving another purpose, particularly if that could seem offensive or threatening to the other party.
To be an effective communicator, you have to be a successful listener, and this goes double when you’re speaking different languages. In the most basic way, listening more carefully makes sure we don’t confuse the word for money with the word for friends. It also ensures you’re not responding in a way that could be inappropriate.
Of course, in the Gambia we also had to be mindful of who was listening. Under the regime of President Jammeh, Gambians regularly “disappeared.” We were sure our phone calls and Skype calls were monitored. Outside the house, we were careful with how and what we discussed with our classmates and focus group participants. We didn’t want to be responsible for anyone getting into trouble. Conversations could have real consequences here.
The confusion and carefulness aside, traveling overseas taught me some of the most important lessons in communication. It was more than learning another language, but another way of thinking and engaging. Being forced to use another language makes a person become more thoughtful about what words to use to best express what is needed and how to best connect with others. Pausing to parse a conversation made me a better listener. If you’re careless, you’ll end up with no money and no friends.