Friday, October 2, 2009

"We Have Got to Work on our Communication"

Granted, this is an obscure reference that maybe only my dad will get, but if you add to that phrase some lively hand gesticulating, you’ll have what is my favorite moment delivered by Will Smith in the movie ‘Independence Day.’

When I was growing up and my mom worked the night shift at the hospital, my dad and I would always have these movie nights when we would watch all the movies that my dad absolutely loves and my mom can’t stand—ie, lots and lots of repetitive viewings of ‘Independence Day’, ‘Waterworld’, and ‘Star Wars.’ I’m pretty sure that the moment after the marital vows were spoken, the rings exchanged, and the honeymoon over, when my dad found out that my mom didn’t actually enjoy the Star Wars series like she had fronted during their courtship was a pretty devastating blow to him, and so at least I enjoy watching them with him. But anyways, I digress…

I was walking on the outskirts of Dogbo by one of the schools here and stopped at a ‘cafeteria’ (where they sell things like Nescafe, omelets on spaghetti—you get really used to that delicious combination—or oatmeal, etc.) to buy a water sachet. They had a T.V. and, ironically enough, a French dubbed ‘Independence Day’ was playing on exactly this scene between Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. I found it doubly ironic that Smith’s line was stated in barely understandable French because I’ve been thinking lately how hard communication actually is here.

Sometimes I stop and wonder how different my Peace Corps experience would be had I been placed in an English speaking country. I don’t think it would be easier per se—at least I know there would be other types of difficulties to make up for the language barrier—but sometimes, communication issues so get in the way of accomplishing things here. I can have an hour-long discussion with someone and realize afterward that they weren’t taking in anything that I said. I can confirm a meeting time 10 times and still have people come 2 hours late. I can lay out expectations with a work partner when we are starting out on a project and have them completely disregard everything that we agreed to because they didn’t “really understand” no matter how explicitly I speak.

This very morning, I woke up at 5:20 to go to my health center and work on the national polio vaccination campaign with them. Cases of polio have cropped up across West Africa last year so the Southern Departments of Benin and several other West African countries were coordinating a 5 day door to door vaccination campaign. It was supposed to start October 1st and run through the 5th but when I went to the health center on Wednesday to confirm our going out yesterday morning I was informed that the campaign was being pushed back: We would start the today, the 2nd, instead because if we went out on the weekends it would be more likely people would not be out in the fields etc. Arriving at the health center at around 6AM as I was told, I found that I was utterly alone, which, this being Benin, wasn’t entirely surprising. So I sat around for a bit until a nurse from the maternity ward came out to tell me they changed it again and are going to start on the 7th. Fabulous…thanks for the call to let me know.

Then I went to my ONG to tell my homologue I was going to Cotonou. I had walked over in the midday sun (always a mistake in this country) and so was sweating massively when I arrived (as per usual). My homologue looks at me and warns me that I should not be walking around in the sun so much because I will catch the “pallu” aka, malaria. Back in April we had an IST—additional weeklong training period that volunteers attend WITH their homologue. The topic of our additional training was Malaria…cause, myths, treatment, symptoms, state sponsored efforts at combating it, etc. Anything and everything regarding malaria was discussed. The fact that my homologue, who had been at this week-long conference with me, still managed to come away thinking—like many Beninese people—that the sun causes malaria blows my mind. I mean, at least I know from that situation that it isn’t just me. I wasn’t running the workshop: An American who is fluent in French and 2 Beninese people were. So clearly not all the fault in the communication issues that exist in this culture lead back to my dismal French skills.

And also, at least sometimes miscommunication can be equally amusing so it offsets the frustrations. For example

When I came back from America, I brought the director of my ONG a reed diffuser for his house because, his words, he likes “pretty things.” When I gave it to him I explained—I thought pretty clearly—what it was and how to use it. Yet the other day he thanked me again for the gift that he is apparently using as a body perfume. When he said this I just kind of gaped for a moment before being able to compose my facial expression. I’m hoping he didn’t notice. We were at my ONG with a lot of other people and in my head I was trying to very quickly calculate whether or not it was worth it to explain to him that he was not using it correctly. After a fraction of a second I decided I did not want to say anything and have it end up being embarrassing so I just smiled and said I was glad that he liked it. But walking away from him I couldn’t help but wonder, “Where did I go wrong in my explanation?”

So as much as “we have got to work on our communication” seems ironically fitting for how I have been feeling lately, I am pretty certain that even if I lived here a decade, communication would still get the better of me in Benin.

On an unrelated note, I think that this time of year might just be scorpion season. I hadn’t seen any in my house in a long time but have recently started finding them again. And for the first time ever, I had a mouse in my house. My doors were closed so I have no idea where it even came from. I know my neighbors have mice sometimes but I always thought that Scout acted as a deterrent to them even dropping down from my ceiling or what not. But I guess not. I was reading last night and all of a sudden heard this horrible squealing sound. Scout trotted happily into the room with this poor little mouse squirming in her mouth and proceeded to play with it for about 10 minutes, batting its rigamortis-y body around my living room before eating it. Bon appetite!


Maman et Papa said...

So - THANKS A LOT - you let the cat of out of the bag (LOL)!!!! Well, I must say, all those movies that mom does not want to see is on the list when you get home. Mom will be - well - wherever - two days will be spent seeing all those movies WE missed and then we will go to - well you know where - and have dinner - and then we will continue our marathon of movie watching! I CANNOT WAIT!!!!!

Catherine said...

Hey, poor Mr. Wauters! That explains the whole Star Wars thing...jk! Awww, just looking at your Dad's post of a movie marathon when you return must make you feel warm and fuzzy. Such feelings are important to keep b/c of the difficulties you face in Benin. Communication, perhaps the lack of it, is a universal problem. However, I do think it might be more of a hardship where you live obviously. I think its not just communication problems, but rather culture problems. I think as you admit it if you lived there 10yrs you would still have the same issues. I think simply you are an American, thoroughly, and a New Yorker (yay), that's never going to change. I think you have accomplished soooo much over there. I know it must be a bit of a struggle, but sometimes the most important things we do are measured in the smallest gestures. Though the results vary, your intentions in the first place are what matter. I am soooooo proud of you again and I know you will keep striving forward because thst is you. Wonderful CW! It was great to hear from you! Hope you get my letter soon and you are doing well. Miss ya oodles! Cat

C Leigh said...

HEY!!!! How are you and the little devil cat doing? (Just kidding!) Hope you are doing well- I miss you! Package on the way- you must open before your bday ok! No hoarding until January.