In many places around the world, local languages are under threat from the homogenizing effect of English and other international language. In Ghana, it is rather English that is way sided by the local language. Ghanaians seem to think it is quite natural to switch to their local language, even when a non-local speaker is engaged in the conversation. The effect is exclusionary. Not intentionally so, but callously so. You can be standing in a group of people and they will chit chat right in front of you without any care that you are excluded from the conversation. And this isn’t just an instance of a little white girl feeling overly sensitive. I work in an ‘international’ office. I don’t mean international as in Western. I mean an office that recruits from across Africa. My boss is from Uganda. Other colleagues are from neighbouring Ivory Coast, Senegal, Togo and further afield from places like Tanzania. And they all quietly grumble about the stark disregard for office conversations that take place in front of their faces in a language they don’t understand.
This language insensitivity was something that had clearly been getting under my skin without me actually putting my finger on my feeling of exclusion. I felt it, but I never articulated the issue. And then there was a moment, when my boss, the number 2 guy in our organization, said to me, clearly and directly in front of the other colleagues, “In my culture, it’s rude to speak a language that those around you don’t understand.” There wasn’t a single reaction from anyone in the group. They know they do it and they don’t care. They feel justified. They say they like speaking their local language. My boss’ verbalization of the problem however laid the first straw that would very quickly snap my tolerance.
Shortly afterwards, almost everyone from my work was attending a colleague’s funeral. My work was coordinating the transport logistics for our group. Yet in Ghana, coordination is generally a loose affair with a lot of unsuccessful attempts to herd unruly sheep and move as a group in any timely fashion. So I had gone to the funeral, but was feeling ill and lightheaded that day. After the church service, there was a lengthy discussion about how long the group would stay to socialize and when our bus would be heading back. Not feeling well, I wanted to know what the plan was so that I knew whether to wait for the group or find my own way back. Yet despite repeatedly asking ‘what’s going on?’ no one bothered to answer me.
Not too much after that, my work was preparing to host a large conference in South Africa. Tensions in the office were fairly high as everyone was stressed out with preparations. Twelve of us in total would be going to assist with presentations and/or the running of the event, but we were all scheduled to depart on different days depending on our respective tasks and duties. Four of us had the same departure and went to check in as a group. We got to the check-in counter of the international airport where the check in discussion proceeded in the local language.
All I got was a few tidbits revolving around the fact that our travel agent had neglected to forward the airline our seat preferences. There was a lot of dialogue going back and forth in the local language, but I only got clips of conversations as they peppered their conversation with English phrases. One colleague kept talking about how tall she is and how she needed an aisle seat. More talking. Are they managing to negotiate seat preferences? I ask what’s going on. The response, “It’s a personal matter.” My inappropriate response, “So personal that I’m the only one who doesn’t know what we’re talking about?”
Next item on the agenda. Checking in the luggage. Two colleagues are way overweight between the conference items they needed to bring and their personal luggage. I, however, have packed extremely light. No problem, they can use my unused kilos so they don’t have to pay overweight charges. More processing in the local language. The next thing I know, the agent hands over all the baggage tags to one woman and says they are under her name. I was like, whoa, so what happens if our baggage gets lost? Is she the only one who will be able to follow up with the missing luggage? This is important, I say, as my luggage inconveniently goes missing all the time, seriously all the time. And the woman who has been put in charge of our collective luggage is a surely, unhelpful type. I don’t want to have to rely on her. In exasperation, they say fine, just let me check in by myself. Then I wait, I wait, I wait as the discussion go on and on in the local language. Eventually I leave the check-in counter where the undecipherable discussion is still ongoing and go to wait in the nearby seats. Like 20 minutes later I go back to the counter to inquire what’s going on. They say that because I checked in separately they are now trying to find other means of getting their luggage through without paying excess baggage dues. I return to my seat and continue to wait out the process. When they finally finish, they then walk right past me, clearly unimpressed with me. So no one really speaks to me. We board the flight. We get off the flight.
Because it’s a large conference, we have hired some professional conference organizers to assist us. The organizer arrives to meet us and put us on the shuttle to our hotel. So all 5 of us are standing outside waiting for the shuttle. My Ghanaian colleagues are grouped together like a little trio, chatting away. I stand just a couple of feet separate with the organizer. Quite tired, still receiving the cold shoulder by my colleagues, and used to zoning out when the conversation buzzes around me in words I can’t decipher, I begin to do exactly that. When out of the silence, the organizer turns to me and says, does it bother you that you don’t understand. Yes, I said, point blankly. It’s rude not just for me, but to exclude the woman my work has hired to help with our conference logistics.
We all board the shuttle. As it turns out, of the 3 conference hotels, I am the only one from my work who was put in the third hotel. The other three ladies headed off as a little clique into their hotel. It wasn’t actually intentional, just no one noticed that the other colleagues who would be staying at the same hotel as me weren’t arriving until 3 days later. As my colleagues got out of the shuttle, I asked them if there was a plan to meet up. They noncommittally said they were going to rest for a while. I didn’t hear from them for the entire weekend. Apparently my slight at the airport was enough to carry over into noninclusion for the entire weekend.
Later on, we had a team meeting scheduled. A van came to pick us up at our respective hotels. I got into the bus without saying good morning and just sat down quietly. The lack of politeness I displayed by not greeting people (greeting is a big deal here), was enough for my colleague blow up at me for being rude. This is despite the fact that no one bothered to check in on my all weekend. I tried to explain how they exclude me all the time in their conversations, but she couldn’t see my point. (For your reference, this blow-up was not permanent and me and this colleague get along perfectly well today. I’m not someone who typically fosters estranged work relations ). But it was a very frustrating experience – an episode that got blown out of proportion by my actions and by theirs. But at that point, I also had had enough.
And now, 4 months on, nearly one year in Ghana. I have resigned myself to the way it is. If my boss can’t do it, if my other African, but non-Ghanaian colleagues have no effect, surely my cold anger will only lead me into another hot water situation.
And so, when I need to get the hole in my office fixed so the mice stop pissing and shitting over my documents after I leave in the evening and I approach the human resources officer who then directs the entire conversation in the local language to the maintenance guy, I just stand by like a non-party to a discussion that is 100% tied to my personal issues. At the end of the conversation, I gently inquire into what decisions have been made. The hole doesn’t actually get fixed for another 3 months, but that is another issue…
For Ghanaians who pride themselves on being friendly, they are…and they aren’t.