I am regularly surprised when I surprise siSwati and isiZulu speakers with what I think are my poor language skills.
Speaking a few words of the local language has always been important to me. I have spent many hours learning a few phrases in French, Twi, kiSwahili, and Turkish before traveling to locations where these languages are spoken. I studied German for eight years, including a summer and a school year studying abroad in Austria. I have been traveling since 2006 and have learned how important it is to be able to greet or thank the locals you encounter on travels.
It has only been in Africa, though, where the locals have been surprised by my minimal language skills.
On my first trip to Ghana, where I did research in small communities surrounding Kumasi, I thoroughly enjoyed walking through markets greeting the salespeople as I perused their wares. Their surprise at my few words of Twi made these journeys entertaining, but I never thought about why the locals were surprised.
Here in Swaziland, the surprise is common enough that I have begun thinking about it.
To me, this surprise shows how little respect the Swazi language, culture, and traditions have received from all of the previous foreigners to live in, work in, and visit Swaziland.
Swazis shouldn’t have to be surprised that I can greet in siSwati, can dress and behave appropriately and as my status as council member’s daughter requires, and correctly tie the knot of my lihiya when I am traditionally dressed.
Swazis shouldn’t have to think they need to greet me in English and they shouldn’t have to laugh in surprise when they hear me ask to squeeze past someone on a khumbi in siSwati.
The bar shouldn’t be set so low that they call me a Swazi when I correctly do any of these things.
While I appreciate being called a Swazi, especially because it shows how much my presence is accepted and respected, I wish it wasn’t this way.
I wish that this country and its people and heritage were respected enough that the people who come to work, live, and vacation here learned appropriate greetings and behavior before coming.
I am also in a position to teach the people who come to work, live, and vacation here what respect of tradition and culture means as my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and I relish this role.
While Peace Corps Volunteers are expected to do work in the form of teaching and training locals, that is only one-third of our responsibilities. The other two are to share the local culture with Americans and to share America with locals, both of which are so easily achieved, leave a lasting impression, and can offer so many benefits and respect.
I see this as all PCVs, including all the 230,000 RPCVS and future recruits, have the opportunity to be brand ambassadors. Our brand is both America and our country of service. Instead of wearing some brand’s clothing at a reduced price and speaking its benefits to those around us, we will forever be able to speak fondly of our service and our second homes and families around the world, and we might even wear their clothing, too.