I have now been at KwaZamokuhle in Kwa-Zulu Natal Province for a month and a half, and although my skills at speaking isiZulu have greatly improved since day one, I still struggle immensely at being able to communicate with the people around me. I can say “Hello, How are you?” (Sawubona! Unjani?) and tell whoever it is that I am speaking to that I am well (Ngiyaphila). I’ve learned quite a few other vocabulary words, how to tell children to “come here” (Woza la), and to say “I’m sorry” (Ngiyaxolisa). However, I remember feeling, and still do feel stifled by not being able to speak the language that the people in the community in which I am living speak. In a lot of ways I cannot be myself with the people with whom I don’t know how to communicate. There are many parts of me that have yet to come out of the woodwork because of this. I felt and still feel silenced by this language barrier. Ways of interacting with and relating to people are off-limits to me because all I can do is sit back, listen, and a lot of the time zone out to what sounds so new to my ears. Not only do I not understand what’s being said, I can’t be involved in what is being said. I simply have to sit on the sidelines, and that’s difficult for me as it would be for anyone trying to be a part of a community. Ways of relating and interacting that I consider myself good at, like something as simple as making conversation or asking children questions about themselves, are things I don’t know how to do in isiZulu. I simply cannot engage the way I would like to be able to engage. Of course, it gets easier every day, but thinking about the ways that I feel myself being silenced by this language barrier made me think on a broader level about the ways that people, individuals and different groups of people, have been silenced throughout history. I make absolutely no claim to have any idea what it’s like to be truly silenced in the ways that oppressed people have been silenced, but I would like to explore this a bit.
There are thousands of languages being spoken throughout the world today and we’re familiar with many of them: English, Spanish, Zulu, Mandarin, Swahili, Hindi, etc. These are the languages that we learn in the classroom and study so that we can ace exams or travel to a foreign land and be able to communicate. But what about language that’s not necessarily only about the words we speak but about the way we interact? Within societies there are languages that define the way that women interact with women and men with men. There are languages that define how young people interact with old people. There are also languages that dictate how those in power interact with those who have little to no power in this world, those who are oppressed by the society in which they live. For instance, during Apartheid there were certain “languages” used for the interaction between racial groups. Sometimes this meant an actual spoken language, perhaps of Afrikaans, but it often meant so much more than that and included body language and other ways of interacting. Another, perhaps more subtle example might be the ways in which women throughout history were given the proper “language” to interact with men and vice versa. The use of one language and not another has ways of silencing people as we have seen countless times throughout history. Women have been silenced and forced into the background through the use of language that includes all ways of interacting, not simply spoken words. Immigrants are silenced by the use of cultural and spoken language that is not their own. The mother tongue of immigrants, refugees, and the colonized alike is often treated as inferior, second-class, and ignorant, and frequently gets lost. Just like the language of oppressed peoples, the people themselves can get lost. People are silenced by language and forced into the background. Re-developing a voice in the world can be a long and difficult process, one that so many are now striving to do.
In this same way that throughout history there have been unspoken, non-verbal languages used to communicate between and among groups of people, there have been a lot of non-verbal ways that I have been able to communicate with people in my community, and a lot of ways that my new friends have helped me develop my language skills as well as simply guiding me on my journey. When a child sings a song with me, no matter if in English or Zulu, we are communicating. When we play a game of tag or something that resembles duck-duck-goose, we are communicating. A woman with whom it is difficult to verbally communicate at the Centre because of our language barrier will pantomime what she is trying to say or point out different items to me to get her point across. There is also the language of a handshake, particularly the South African handshake that is a bit more complicated and somewhat more fun than the American one I am used to, or the language of a hug at the passing of the peace during church or at then end of a long day speaks volumes. When there is so much unspoken it might be harder to hear what is being communicated, but this is where I need to open my eyes wider and look around me. This is the language of neighborly love and accompaniment. In this language we begin to see the love of Christ exemplified in the human condition and God walking with us here on Earth. Here at KwaZamokuhle, the Holy Spirit guides me and helps me to see the kind of love that comes from these languages and in many ways has given me a voice which will continue to grow as the year goes on.