I Am Here

Our church has just had an International Weekend, celebrating the diversity of cultures and nations represented among our church’s number. As one who loves language and is fascinated by pretty much everything, I have had a cracking weekend – just amazing!

The church we belong to is a real inner-city church, and describes itself as a local, international church. It is a true microcosm of the broader population of London, with a diversity of language and culture that I have never experienced anywhere before.

On Friday, I went to help out at the church’s weekly coffee morning. At the early morning prayer meeting for both the coffee morning and the International Weekend ahead, one of the elders prayed that an Italian person would come to the church. For some reason, he had Italy on his mind.

Half an hour later, as we set up the coffee table and people started arriving, a woman walked into the church and stood awkwardly (without her cell phone!) and alone in the body of the church. Two women went over to greet her, and asked if this was her first visit to the Friday event. She didn’t understand what they were saying, because she spoke no English. She was from Italy. We were all wide-mouthed and blown away; an immediate answer to a specific prayer.

Her daughter-in-law arrived shortly thereafter and managed to translate for her. She told her mother-in-law the significance of everyone’s excitement, and the Italian woman seemed moved. When her daughter-in-law moved away, the English women tried to ask her what her name was. Using gestures that didn’t convey their question, the Italian lady responded by saying, “Oggi.” (Today.)

I called on my limited knowledge of Italian (I studied it for two years at university), and asked her what her name was. But I think I asked her what my name was. More accurately, “What do you call myself?”

She smiled graciously and told me her name. She beamed at the thought that I might be able to communicate haltingly with her, and I confessed my limited ability. I managed, however, to tell her how welcome she was and she smiled broadly. Either she was pleased, or it was because I might have said, “he is welcome”.

At our International Weekend, church members were invited to dress in their traditional outfits and to bring their traditional foods to share. I’m sure I’ll miss some out, but nations such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, America, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Scotland, Ireland, England, Iraq, Brazil, Germany, Iran, India, and Thailand were represented both sartorially and culinary-wise.

Reflecting on this extent of diversity I realise that while I am a lover of language, there is a lot that I know a little about. I so wish that the reverse were true, and that I could have had a decent conversation with Friday’s welcome visitor from Italy.

I also studied French at school and majored in it at university but, not having had the opportunity to work with the language, nor to spend time in France, my rusty and limited knowledge of spoken French leaves me little to say of interest.

I went to night school to study Xhosa when I lived in Cape Town. Xhosa is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa, and is indigenous to the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape (where Cape Town is).  It is difficult to learn for a few reasons: there are three different clicks that you use, and the mastery of these clicks alone is a huge challenge; the structure of the language is quite different from any other language I have studied, with its use of compound words being the biggest challenge for me.

It is a beautiful language and so many of its expressions relate to the culture and the nature of the Xhosa people.  When you see someone for the first time in a day, it is important to greet him and ask how he is. The answer is usually an honest description of how you are; I’m fine, thank you does not feature, as far as I know. It is possible, however, just to say, I am here. I love that. Sometimes I am just here, there’s nothing more to say.

I loved learning Xhosa, and practising it with my friends and colleagues. Like any other language, practice makes perfect and it is easy to lose the language if you don’t keep speaking it. So now I could have a conversation with you in Xhosa, if all you wanted to know was how I was, and what my name is, where I live and that I am married. We could then smile at each other, and look awkward. I could also tell you that I have two small boys, but that would be a lie. Truth is, I can’t remember how to say I have two young adult sons.

So many languages, so little time. Immersion in a culture is truly the best way to learn its language and learning the nuances of English in this vast and shrinking global village is enough of a challenge for me right now. Thinking any further makes my head hurt or, as they say in Xhosa, “Ndinentloko.”

Sunshine signing off for today!