We Irish are a fairly homogenous gloop. Readily identifiable to each other while on foreign holiday, we can spot the “big Irish head” on someone from quite a way off. Most of us speak the same language (except, you may venture, those from Cavan). We behave similarly; have similar traditions and customs. We see it as a badge of honour that the few foreigners who do successfully penetrate our borders will become over time “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. Assimilated 🙂
Well the diversity of this country and its people is something I have been really impressed by since I arrived here. If Ethiopia is a nation of people who are bound together by “sameness” or a commonly shared identity it is difficult at first glance to see. Because here, as I see it, no two people are similar. If there is an Ethiopian “look”, I don’t know what it is. There are multiple religions, all living side by side in considerable harmony; Ethiopian Orthodox, Muslim, Protestant. And the mother tongues spoken by these people are as different to each other as French is to German.
In Ethiopia, there are over eighty languages.
Think about it. Eighty!
I doubt if I can even list eighty languages.
So that Ethiopians can communicate with each other, one of these eighty languages is chosen as the national language; Amharic (although it is not the language most widely spoken). So Ethiopians learn their mother tongue, Amharic and English. I am lucky that I am stationed in the Amhara region and so I only need to learn Amharic and not another local language as well. That might have triggered a fire in my brain.
Somewhere along the way Amharic was described to me as “Nature’s gift”. I can think of some other choice words for it. Any language where the response for, “How are you?” is “Igzyihiber yimesken” is surely the wrath of some malevolent God.
But I really do love languages and I am enjoying learning Amharic immensely though it initially seems diabolical. My neighbours and colleagues are genuinely impressed with my progress and assume I will be fluent within the next month or so 🙂
(To ratchet up the difficulty level, my landlady’s family are Muslim and they actually speak more Arabic than Amharic! So I am picking up some very few words of that as well.)
As an absolute beginner, my focus is not on mastery of the written or spoken word, just verbal communication. That is just as well, because as it happens there are no less than 264 “letter” in the Amharic alphabet and the script is surely the handwriting of a drunk Alien.
I am realising once again that most communication is non-verbal and that you can get by with relatively little of the language for routine ideas. A grunt here, a smile there or a shrug can move the conversation on in leaps and bounds.
But, there are some rather hilarious boo boos. Thankfully I remain blissfully unaware of my own mistakes in Amharic (although I did recently have the misfortune of finding out that the word for lunch in Amharic is vexingly similar to the word for a particular part of the female anatomy :/). When my Amharic fails the situation completely we must resort to the pidgin English of the Ethiopian in question. And depending on the individual, the consequences can be side-splitting. I sincerely hope my bad Amharic gives them as much cause for laughter!
One day, I was sitting out in the courtyard drinking coffee with the women (it’s a hard life). The time was passing by pleasantly enough and then I noticed they were murmuring something about me. The landlady was nominated to articulate it in English. She said,
“Ais, my fish is green.”
I looked at her. She was desperately earnest and she is a lovely kind lady so I tried my best to suppress a huge grin. She persisted with this for another few attempts
“Ais. My fish is green.”
I was drawing a blank.
She moved her hands about a bit, before repeating,
“AIS. MY FISH IS GREEN.”
I was finding it more difficult not to laugh. And again,
“AIS! My fish is green!”
I still had no clear idea of what she was trying to say so I could offer no help and it was getting quite uncomfortable. Perhaps her fish was green, but for heaven’s sake what was I to do about it?!
By degrees, she realised it wasn’t quite right and corrected her own mistake, fixing on,
“Ais, your face is red!”
Indeed! Hahahaha! Sunburnt and doubled over with laughter!
Another evening I was in next door drinking tea (it’s a hard life #2). It was late-ish and Mohammed bounded in the door from work. He sat down enthusiastically opposite me to a plate of injera and tucked in. He was ravenous. In explanation, he exclaimed, “I am hungry!”, in between mouthfuls as he devoured the plate of injera before him. I nodded understandingly and smiled encouragingly as he ate before he felt the need to clarify by saying,
“My abdomen is awake!”
😀 😀 😀