Welette leafed through a magazine abundantly populated by advertising for cultural hotspots in London. She let it slip through her fingers and onto the floor then gloated through her bookshelf. Nothing appealed to her. Her mind was focused on data – 80 languages and 200 dialects with very little media representation. A shocking contrast to the choice of media content in a single language like English.
Her hand fell on Carol Beckwith and Angela Fischer’s African Ark. The cover photograph never ceased to mesmerize her, a majestic black face covered in white geometric lines, adorned with silver earrings and a light blue head wrap. It was commissioned by a public entity but would never be accessible to the people it spoke about in a language they would easily understand, unless of course somebody translated it. She was confused by the complexities of language and literature because she spoke just one of so many languages that defined her and made up part of the landscape she came from.
She dreamed of one day unravelling her confusion in a library full of books but before she could finish dreaming the dream, she was dreaming she was presented with a laptop computer. Her fascination was suddenly drawn away from the data into a lifestyle wrapped up in glitzy new media. The adventure took her from cell phones to smart phones and to the Internet with all its apps until everything came to a standstill when she realized there was a serious flaw. None of the 80 languages that defined her were developed adequately enough to reflect her presence in cyberspace. The embarrassment caused her tremendous anxiety.
“Why?” asked her quizzical English friend, Gregg.
“First off, it’s easy to assume that people know what you are referring to when you speak the same language every day, but if the language you speak changes according to the towns you travel through then it’s a total different ball game,” she explained. “So, take the news, for example, if it’s being reported in a language you understand but from a place you’ve never been to, then the references will be just as meaningless as if you didn’t speak the language at all,” she said, “So if I said to you when you arrive in Addis Ababa please call Gashe Worku and ask him if Ato Senay from Legehar can take the gesho out to dry you will only understand the bare bones of my message and will not even be able to transmit it without having to write it down.”
“I still don’t see the point of your anxiety,” replied Gregg, “People travel all the time. I don’t speak Welsh or Irish and I get along with the news quite well. There’s only so much I need to understand about Wales when I don’t live there anyway. I suppose we cohabitate perfectly that way. I don’t feel the need to speak Scottish Gaelic to find out about the Edinburgh film festival. It’s just a matter of organization, really, I don’t see why your 80 languages can’t agree on one official language for communication purposes and go about their happy ways?”
Welette sighed. England was of course different, and she was starting to understand why she found the news here so mundane. “It’s hard to explain, Gregg, the news helps people to imagine lifestyles and relationships. It helps to arouse interest and curiosity about differences in a society. Isn’t it great that you hear about the Samhuinn festival and perfectly understand what it’s about without having to inquire what it means in English? Don’t you see how one language has the capacity of facilitating understanding and defining social relationships between diverse groups peacefully? Otherwise, the news might just as well be limited to cities and the police force, when there is so much more to report on – business and consumers, schools, parents and education policies, public health and epidemics, things that happen every day in modern society.”
Gregg didn’t have much patience for this level of depth in conversation, but he had to show he was trying to be understanding, “What exactly do you mean? What kind of news is the news you want to listen to?” he asked.
Welette wished she hadn’t started this conversation which was now starting to get to her. She found it hard to explain that she’d never known the news to adequately address everyone in the world in one language at any given time and she simply wished for language subtitles to appear in news that appeared in less frequented languages.
“I can imagine having sane conversations with people who come from different language backgrounds and listen to news that is produced connecting views that are expressed through different languages. Culturally inclusive, Gregg, that is what I’m trying to say, I want to listen to news that is not only politically but also culturally inclusive,” Welette beamed victoriously having finally voiced what had been pent up in her.
“Like being presented in English, Welsh and Irish, all three languages at the same time? For everyone to be on the same wavelength?” asked Gregg, finally showing a genuine hint of interest.
“Well you already have a system that works for you here. Look at it this way, if three languages in any given country are able to represent all 80 languages, then yes, your example would work. The English news would talk about what’s being reported in Welsh and in Gaelic and vice versa, you see what I mean? That would facilitate a wider understanding about how citizens can feel a sense of belonging in the wider landscape,” Welette sighed.
“Hmmm, I still don’t understand why you’re doing your head in, who cares about these things, honestly. Why do you even care? We have the Internet and social media now. If you don’t get something you Google it, if there’s a message you want to spread, you Tweet it, if its in another language you google translate it,” argued Gregg.
“Honestly? You really believe that Twitter followers have enough understanding about issues that newsmakers and politicians struggle to understand themselves? You think that illiterate people will be able to give you a plausible proposal about how to remove themselves from poverty and dive into futuristic, profiteering world economies?”
Welette lectured on, “Tweets blindside grassroots livelihoods. They stay alive by facilitating ethnic conflict not by engaging in peaceful process because they are dictated by people who have a livelihood outside such communities, not in them. Then those people sensationally tag every conflicting incident with wild terms such as “genocide” and egg on all the mayhem. Tweets are effective when they get retweeted in rich countries by extremists who have never lived in the countries where they fan ethnic conflict merely to capitalize on classic rivalries, to appear victimized and then to leap into power. It’s a great way of gaining prominence over front runners in the race that manage to organize themselves into political units that have no political ideology, so we can call them ethnocentric. It all adds to general anxieties and panic in the wider population and I guess is a great recipe for conflict.”
“Interesting,” replied Gregg raising his eyebrows, “You remind me of times prior to the happy days of ready-made meals in grocery stores. We didn’t have a clue what families were cooking in their kitchens although we smelled them, and some people would have a go at the Chef for spreading unfamiliar aromas. But now, any curry is more popular than ham in the fridge. It’s even part of our national diet. So, before it was accepted, curry was a reason for conflict, but once understanding was obtained, it became part of a profitable and enjoyable recipe in the household. You’ll find curry powder everywhere before you find bacon and it certainly will be used for lunch,” said Gregg feeling like he was finally getting away from language conversation.
“I don’t think you need to worry about things like that too much, they tend to fix themselves in the long run,” he continued, wiping the crumbs off his mouth with a paper napkin. “British culture is certainly invested in the media. What I mean is that we don’t care how often the curry is in the kitchen so long as we find it on television. It tastes better that way because what we consume, regurgitate, swallow, digest, reject . . . is not just a meal at meal-times, it’s also what we get in the news, like now!” he threw his head back and laughed at his own rant while Welette rolled her eyes at him.
What you eat is what you become?
The first time they met, Gregg and Welette developed a love-hate sort of relationship that played out at charity parties. Welette understandably had a thing for raising school project funds for children in East Africa. Gregg liked the way she used a childhood story to illustrate the importance of noticing the way in which new differences may be created as old ones are overcome. Every time Welette told the story, he sat back and pictured her running around the school grounds with her friend, Sara, the girl with the pig tails and pleated grey skirt, both of them gripping onto their lunchboxes, skipping in search of a discreet lunch spot on the school games’ field.
“I’ve got Kitkat for dessert,” piped Sara to Welette with a wide smile that reached her twinkling eyes.
“Will you trade it for an egg sandwich?” asked Welette shyly.
“I’ll trade an egg sandwich for a ham sandwich and the Kitkat,” replied Sara.
“We’ll share the Kitkat,” replied Welette and they went off to find a quiet spot. When they finished eating, they licked the chocolate off their fingertips and parted to pack away their lunch boxes. Welette then headed for the nearest tap and lined up behind the children waiting to wash their hands or fill their water bottles. One of the girls shoved past her giving her an unfriendly shoulder jerk.
“Do you eat ham?” she asked glaring down at her. Welette recognized all five girls that had now gathered around her.
“Ugh, you really eat ham?” said another girl, Lishan, wrinkling up her nose in disgust.
“It’s none of your business,” replied Welette who was not easily intimidated.
“What does it taste like?” asked the smallest girl of the group.
“It’s good, you should try it if you get a chance,” said Welette.
“Are you going to tell your Mum?” asked another.
“She already knows,” replied Welette, “She was happy I didn’t turn yellow,” she said laughing. The girls laughed with her.
“Unfortunately eating ham has made you a Muslim now so you can’t play with us anymore,” said Lishan, then turned on her heels and walked off. The others didn’t follow her.
“What’s a Muslim?” asked one of the girls.
“Dunno, someone who likes ham maybe,” giggled the girls.
Gregg had thoroughly enjoyed the story until Welette linked it to the incomprehensible idea that the one language she spoke would never have existed without the 79 that she didn’t speak. He didn’t quite get that both were part of Welette’s experience and had implications on how she saw herself and related with others.
Welette watched him scoff down the remnants of his bacon bap just in time to answer his telephone. She picked up her bag, waved goodbye and headed for the underground stopping on her way to check her Twitter account. Her heart sank – the general elections that had been planned in her home country had just been postponed because of Covid19. What was this going to lead to now?
The stairs into the underground station were unusually not as packed with people as normal. The walls that once projected pink flashing lights and babies on roller skates advertising bottled water were no longer in sight. Even the sound of the busker had gone quiet. The media culture that Gregg spoke about between mouthfuls was literally and visibly in the hands of the consumer. People pulled out their phones for another glance at the screen as they stepped on and off the escalators. Anybody who was interested in the harrowing accounts of world conflict and hunger could help themselves as they pleased so long as they had the relevant app that needed to be followed. Broadcasting channels were unfortunately too busy filling the news with the latest on Covid19, not the ills and woes of undemocratic states and nations, at least not for now in London.
The radio was blaring when Welette finally arrived home. She sighed, washed her hands at the kitchen sink and told her reflection in the hallway mirror that media is always a good conversation starter.
“Hi Biddy, what’s playing on the radio?” she asked.
“More of the same, really, what’s up with you?” replied Biddy as she pulled out her washing onto an electric drying rack.
“I went to see Gregg about work but there’s none. No point, anyway, the elections back home have been postponed. We can all sleep through the lockdown now.”
“Seriously? Where did you hear that?” asked Biddy.
“It’s all over Twitter, Biddy,” replied Welette.
They look at each other speechlessly then Biddy gathered her washing basket, swung her hips and exclaimed hot headedly, “Elections are to people what Covid19 is to ventilators. They knock the breath out of you when you plan to participate in them, and they let you breathe when you are on the winning side. God help us with this one! What are you going to do about the 80 languages?”
“I don’t know. And I think you’ll have to pick a better analogy,” said Welette, “The ventilators have nothing to do with elections and their proper management will keep patients from dying,” she felt deflated even after having had her say. Biddy disappeared up the stairs.
The telephone rang. It was Gregg. He was calling to let her know she needed an additional qualification to work as diversity and inclusion manager at the local council. Welette thanked him and hung up. She was thinking of her bills as Biddy reappeared from where she’d gone. She turned on the kettle, made a pot of tea and sat across Welette at the miniature dinner table.
“Gregg thinks its daft that I speak a language that exists because of 79 other languages that I don’t speak,” said Welette.
“Remember the reporter who filed a story about a coup that wasn’t a coup?”asked Biddy.
Welette rolled her eyes, “What’s that got to do with Gregg? You mean the one who kept going on about the coup in Zim that wasn’t a coup?”
They started to laugh. “It was actually called a “guardian coup” in the end, remember?” said Welette grinning.
“Yeah, what I’m saying is that somebody’s going to try doing just that now that the elections have been postponed. So you can forget about your 80 languages and stop tormenting Gregg. Covid19 is a problem – I just wish we could do something to make it go away – its interfering with everything.”
“Well, we can’t change that now I’m afraid,” replied Welette. “Biddy, it can’t be all that bad.”
Biddy starts to guffaw, “Yeah, Madam Optimist, let’s have a taste of your inspirational insight, come on!”
“Lockdowns are an old phenomenon,” started Welette, “We just never talked about them before because disease has always been hush-hush . . . especially contagion. Remember how Mum went into a panic every time one of us had a cold, or a harvest failed, or a distant war broke out . . . frankly, nobody took her panic to heart.”
“She was two or three years-old when her Mum was taken ill and I was maybe eight or nine when she told me the story. She cried one minute and raged another thanks to the memory of her Mum being lifted onto a wooden stretcher. She was being carried off to an isolation hut, that’s what villagers did to stop disease from spreading, that happened to our grandmother.”
Biddy’s eyes started to fill up. She recalls a more recent version of the story and is momentarily transported back into a different time and context. Welette’s voice brings her back into the present.
“Mum followed her aunt to see what she was happening to the food and drink that was being packed up so early in the morning. She discovered it was left just outside the hut for Grandma to pick it up. The family came together and hoped to see the door open from a distance. But nothing happened.”
“Three days later the village women wailed, and the men fetched the local priest. The wooden stretcher reappeared with Grandma’s body, wrapped in white cotton. She was buried that same day and nothing more was said about it.”
Biddy blew her nose and watched Welette rocking back and forth in her chair. “It’s terrible to have to imagine what actually happened, really. Poor Mum,” she said.
“Yah, impossible to understand if it was the trauma of her early separation or the stigma that followed from her mother’s death that did the worst damage to her,” replied Welette pouring out two cups of fresh tea. Then there was silence until the phone rang a second time. This time it was for Biddy.
“That was Angus,” she said hanging up. We’re having brunch at her place tomorrow. She wanted to know if I like bacon,” Biddy told Welette.
“Sounds like it will be a full breakfast menu,” replied Welette.
“I’m smiling because she doesn’t actually eat bacon herself,” said Biddy.
“Well, it’s generous of her to offer. Maybe she thinks you are Muslim,” chuckled Welette.
“Ha, ha, that’s funny, some things never change. I never touch ham when I go home for holiday,” Biddy remarked grabbing her bag and leaves. Welette brooded, thinking about the one language she spoke out of 80 languages.