A short tale on how easy it is to mis-communicate across cultures and languages.
The narrow, dusty roads wound endlessly around the steep sides of the Valley of a 1000 hills.
To my right the magnificent Inanda dam held back the waters of the mighty Umgeni. Behind me the river bounced into the best section of rapids, between Pietermaritzburg, and Durban, Africa’s biggest port. This was a fairly new view of the dam for me. Normally I would have been on the water in a kayak during a canoe race.
It was 1990 and FW De Klerk, the last apartheid Prime Minister had just opened South Africa’s political path to a full democracy. Political violence beset these beautiful lands and I was in one of the areas most affected. KwaNgcolosi – Ndwedwe, KwaZulu Natal.
The South African Police had set up camp at the nearby Molweni ward to counter the tragic outcomes of the intense emotions in the region. Freedom was coming and the fight was on for power.
At the Lethusizo (Bring Help) School a bearded man came out and greeted me.
“Brine Mor,” he said.
“Sawubona baba,” I greeted him.
The caring formalities of an African greeting unfolded, as he enquired after my health and I his.
We went into the small school and sat down. The hospitality in this poor rural area was amazing and cool-drinks and cakes arrived as the elders of the area joined us. White-haired warlord soon joined his older brother. He was a booming and jovial fellow. The secretary and chairman of the school soon arrived.
A little later a nervous city man arrived. He had seen a huge police convoy, loaded to the top with armed policeman. “Can I follow you out?” he whispered to me in an aside.
We began to talk of our challenges as canoeists in the area and the needs of the school. Natal Canoeing had developed a fund to help small schools such as this one. We discussed the local structures and how the funds would be utilised and controlled. I promised to put forward their application.
Our challenge was more difficult to handle. Predominantly white city-based canoeists were being attacked and hassled by local youth and we needed to find a way to curb the attacks. Some canoeists were not angels and had been fairly reckless in their approach to the locals, their properties and their crops.
The discussion went back and forth as the sun slowly settled over the ridge. I agreed to communicate the community concerns to the canoeing fraternity. A date was set for a community meeting to create awareness and get support from the local people.
It was getting dark as I turned to the person who was to follow me, and said, “We must shoot!” Meaning that we needed to leave soon. Our once-happy warlord erupted in anger, “Yes, shoot them! Shoot them!” he said.
I was shocked and frightened. “What had I done? I was far too young to die!”
And then I realised that he had taken my words at face value. He was incensed at the injustice of the local youth attacking canoeists. And his was a definite, if decidedly unpleasant, way to fix the challenge! We all laughed after I explained my mis-communication. The room settled down as we prepared to leave.
A long association with the group began that day, which culminated in the building of a large local clinic in the area, part funded by canoeists and by donors whom we sourced on behalf of the community.
I realised that day that it is incredibly easy to create discord through mis-communication or pre-judgement. Our words should be carefully chosen to be straight and clear. We should always mean what we say and say what we mean. If we get it wrong, the consequences could often be deadly!
Brian V Moore