“Yes, Please!” – Divided by a Common Language

    Zambia and the U.K. apparently share a common language. Still, it's often hard to communicate with each other, especially since words are often used differently. In my first three months here I have managed to pick up a few translations for "English" phrases. Initially this can be quite confusing, but with time I am starting to communicate in "Zamlish."

    During VSO training sessions, I was encouraged to consider Zambia as a "high context" culture - context is everything. In the U.K., workers tend to limit their conversations to issues related to the job. Here, they make sure that everything is okay with you, your home and your family before getting down to the secondary issues of work.

    When I asked someone how their lunch was today, they answered with a big smile: "Just ok." Yesterday, a colleague had the same reaction - ambivalent to me - when describing their weekend.

    The response begs for investigation because normally, what you get is an almost prerecorded "fine." So one asks: Is everyone in your home well?

    But the issue is not that someone is ill or that people in Zambia are unenthusiastic. Rather, I have slowly learnt that they use "Just ok" to say that something is "only good," meaning it was so good that there's nothing wrong about it. I still find it odd though.

    When I introduced myself to the Council secretary and the senior management team, I mentioned how interesting and important I thought the Council was for the people of Lundazi. With every slightly ingratiating cliché I brought out, the Council secretary clapped his hands and said "yes please." At one point I stopped midway through a sentence to see if someone behind me was offering him something.

    There has also been confusion surrounding the words "expert" and "expat." The result: An expat's opinion is often sought in areas where they have no expertise. Council staff now want me to provide computer training, for instance. While I am happy to do so, I have noted that I can only provide basic training as I am not an "expert in computers." Rogers Banda, a particularly keen student, seemed stumped by this suggestion. "But you are an expat?!" he exclained.

    People here are very quick to "apologize" for your mistakes. If you trip, you will hear "sorry, sorry, sorry," over and over again. Zambians really mean they are sorry for you, but instinctively I assure them that it was not their fault.

    Another choice phrase describes someone who is "too movious," meaning someone who moves around a lot and is therefore difficult to find. This is not seen as a good thing. Also, many Zambians use "too" when in the U.K. we would say "very" - as in "too far" or "too much." For instance, the Council secretary recently described the weather in an irritated voice as "too hot." Initially, I thought he was suggesting that perhaps one of his colleagues was responsible for leaving the heating on, but with time I recognized that he was just noting that it was, yes, very hot.

    Benson, our guard, does not have the strongest grasp of English, but he does know a few words. We normally communicate through hand gestures accompanied by a "kwa kwa kwa" sound (which apparently translates for anything). Last week I was surprised by Benson's English when he explained to me that he had fallen off his bike and broken his torch.

    "Kwa kwa kwa," he explained with a cycling motion, "kwa" as he simulated a fall from his bike, "kwa kwa" as the torch hit the ground. "Now, Mr. John," he said as he held the forlorn torch out for inspection, "torch is buggered."

    Zambians of course all understand their common English, so it is us foreigners who create the confusion. We should try to understand the many intricacies of their vernacular languages. In several Zambian dialects, for instance, it is normal for tomorrow to mean yesterday - hence the confusion over time. Therefore, for the first time, I can happily explain to my boss, "Ni kamu mala nchito yane na mairo." That means I will finish my work yesterday.

    About the author

    • John Crockett

      John Crockett left the United Kingdom in October, 2008, with his partner Betty Alié to join a Voluntary Services Overseas program in Zambia. John will serve as fundraising and project management advisor to the Lundazi District Council for two years, while Betty will work as monitoring and evaluation officer with Thandizani, a local NGO focusing on HIV/ AIDS. John has worked in fundraising and communications for several U.K. nonprofits. Both hold master’s degrees in development economics from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where they met.