talking

Nothing is stranger than strangers who move to a new country and never learn the language. A French woman, a very nice woman indeed, has been living here for (let me just say) many years and speaks barely a single word of Portuguese. What does she do? Who does she talk to? How does she move around the city? Do the shopping? Speak to the traffic cops? I asked her, vous aimez Angola? Oh yes, she said, I love it. I much prefer living here to France. She had an enviable take on the pulse of the country too. The people are getting fed up, she said, fed up with being so poor while everyone else is getting richer. They are angry, she said, it can’t stay like this forever. They are going to get more and more angry. Perhaps you don’t need to speak a language to feel the rhythm of a place. Perhaps you don’t need to be able to communicate verbally. You only need to look in the eyes of the povo*, said an Angolan man, to tell that they are angry. I’ve heard it said, often, in the last few days, that the elite here are too scared to have eye contact with the povo. If a politician, for example, is driving home in the evening, and he is caught in a traffic jam, and finds himself next to a kandongueiro stop with ten or twenty people waiting to travel home, he will not look sideways at them, or nod, or acknowledge even their presence from behind the comfort of his window vacuum. He is scared. He doesn’t want to see the hatred in their eyes, the anger, the laughing. The balance is tipping, such that even a foreign lady who rarely ventures beyond her high security gates, can feel something is on the move. Something is changing. Do we need to speak to each other to know these things? Or is observation more valuable?

Thinking this I remember a very good film made by a very good film-maker. Two hours in the desert with a Touareg family. For much of the time they were speaking in languages only another Touareg would follow: a mix of Tamashek, occasional Arabic (though of course, there are many forms of Arabic) and bits of French. The film-maker offered no narration and only subtitled certain bits of conversation, leaving a lot of the communication between people to be observed, if not directly understood. This caused great consternation for some audience members. One woman seemed to think it showed that the film-maker had discriminated against the Touareg: if he respected them as equals he would have translated every single word which left their mouths. Really? When we visit foreign lands, often we do not understand what people are saying. At the beginning we get by with simple nods and gestures, and trusting people to lead us. Why should a film-maker help the audience to leap-frog this stage? More important though, is the idea that words matter so much. You don’t need to understand everything someone is saying to read their emotions. Words are often unimportant. After I have interviewed an individual, and listened meticulously to every single word they have said, sometimes, a few hours later, I am left trying to remember what they looked like, how they smelt, whether they stuttered, whether they looked me in the eye when they were talking. Now, I take a tape recorder and record everything, and all that I write is what they are doing and how they are speaking. That way I get the whole picture.

* povo means people, but here, in Angola, it means more than people. It means, the mass, the poor majority, and for some, even still today, the lumpen. Trying to explain this word to me recently, a friend, a man, said, ‘We call the people povo because we see them as a block, and, like children, we group them together as a like-minded, same-thinking mass who are in many ways quite childish.’ I am still pondering his thoughts.

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3 thoughts on “talking

  1. She does not speak or want to learn to speak Portugeese because that would be to recognise that Angolans exist,are in the modern, have a life and an ontological tradition. Anything that is outside of her linguistic frame has no meaning and that enables her to hold onto her imagined superiority. Refuse to speak to speak to her in any of the languages she understands – that would teach her a thing or two.

  2. Five years ago I breakfasted with Paulo Lukamba Gato, of UNITA, in a fancy hotel in Luanda. It was 6 months after the war ended. He spoke to the waiter in, I think, Umbundu. It was the first time I had heard an Angolan politician speaking an indigenous language in Luanda. I told Gato, and he said that when he and his fellow UNITA fighters had returned to the capital, they had been advised not to speak local languages in public. “It’s simply not done and you will lose respect,” he was told.

    I’m not trying to get our Francaise off the hook: but I don’t think it’s simply foreigners – and their imagined superiority – who do this. Language is complex. And here, in Angola, what is remarkable is the way in which Portuguese dominates discourse. Really, I should be learning Kimbundu or Kikongo or…

  3. The woman is French for God’s sake and you would expect her to know a bit of Portugeese given the proximity of Portugal and France.

    More to the point – the Portugeese have been in Southern Africa for the last 500 hundrend years and the trace of their presence marks the entirety of the SADC region to the extent that Portugeese is now ‘local’ to the region in the same way French is ‘local’ to Martinique.

    What would be more productive is to look at what has happened to English after empire or French after the defeat of France in Algeria, or to Portugeese after 1497. What one gets is the periphery and the site of postcoloniality. You get a hybrid formation that helps us get past that centre/periphery log jam. Learning the local language does not displace the power of the centre. What is so often placed outside of language is the struggle over meaning.

    I think that postcoloniality and the sheer difficulty of living with difference are the main issues that are going to dominate this century.

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