Action Kivu’s Executive Director Rebecca Snavely recently returned from visiting Congo and all the programs our partners support. She writes here about the joy of finding shared understanding despite language barriers.)
I’d spent a half hour repeating the few words I knew in Swahili and Mashi, the local dialect: “Jambo!” to greet the girls and women in Action Kivu’s Sewing Workshop, and “Coco!” to thank them for allowing me to wander around their space, my face half hidden behind a camera, leaning in to take their photos.
They started to tease me, repeating Jambo! Coco! and laughing. I made a mental note to learn a few phrases in Swahili before my next trip to Congo. Koubde, a slight, older man who teaches embroidery and also repairs the pedal-powered sewing machines tinkered with one machine, tried to explain in French what he was doing. The words mechanic and machinist sound almost the same in English and French, and both our eyes lit up at finally understanding each other. The whole room broke out in joyful laughter.
“Now you’re speaking my language” generally refers to being on the same page, having similar tastes in politics or movies. It reflects back on how it feels to understand someone, and more so, to be understood.
Interviewing the girls in Action Kivu’s Sewing Workshop, many of them had felt illiterate on their first day. They didn’t know anyone, and they didn’t speak the language of sewing – they didn’t know how to operate the pedal to make the machine run, or how to thread the needle, and they were afraid they would not be able to learn. Many of them had no classroom experience with a teacher: denied an education because of their gender and poverty, they were unaccustomed to the sewing trainer’s commanding tone.
Weeks passed, and the girls were all speaking the same language. It sounded like scissors slicing through fabric, needles piercing their path through the brightly colored cloth, laughter at stories shared over the rhythmic sound of their feet pressing the pedals. Stories that gave each girl the glimpse that they were not alone. Each story was unique, based on the life of each girl or woman, but the same themes ran through all. Denied an education because of extreme poverty. Raped and impregnated. Abandoned with a baby. Unsure how to obtain the good life – that of being able to feed oneself and your child, and send them to school to stop this cycle. Speaking the same language, they were understood, and realized they were not alone.