Lost in Translation

Categories Niger

We all like to talk. And we especially like to be understood. Landing in Galmi with very limited French and no Hausa language has made me realise how much I value good two way communication. The results have sometimes been hilarious!

Let me give you some background. Niger is a French speaking country. In Galmi, most patients speak Hasua not French. And some patients speak another language altogether. I would be totally incapacitated without some kind of help translating, so it has been great to work with Tesala who will translate English to Hausa for me.

As I’m learning though, it is not just language that needs translating. A few things have really surprised me. One is the handwriting – it is so different to what I’m used to! Someone explained that people learn a version of French cursive writing in school. So when I try to read a name from a chart, people just laugh at me. Although this could be because names are pretty different. I had one patient whose name was a consonant followed by 6 consecutive vowels!

Once I get past the handwriting, I’ve been confused lots of times by the medical acronyms here. They are all different! I might be used to reading bHCG, WCC, Hb, ROM, TPL, MCV…. but I have had to learn TG, GB, HGB, RPM, MAC, VGM…. And ordering a GE for malaria and a BD for HIV (I don’t even know what BD stands for).

If I get past language, handwriting and medical jargon I find I’m doing OK. But then the non-verbal language is different too! For the first few days as I walked around the hospital I thought people were a bit grumpy with me – shaking their fists at the new clueless visitor. After a few days I worked out the raised fist was usually acompanied with a smile and was equivalent to a friendly wave! And unlike Australia, “uh-huh” means “no”. I had a few funny conversations that went something like “do you have pain?…. Uh-huh…. So where is it? …. what??” Also, a lot of women have been clicking their tongues at me like disapproving mothers. Luckily, someone explained that this is just signifying agreement!

It has been great having a translator, but when Tesala is not there the midwives have been very forgiving of me. Communicating numbers can be tricky – they have been writing on their hands a lot. The staff were trying to explain that a patient lived a long way from the hospital – in the end they drew a long line on their hand and I finally understood!

I’m enjoying learning Hausa as much as I can. Greetings are important, and can go on for quite a while. They follow a little script, so it is easy to feel that you are having an actual conversation with someone. And I’ve learnt how to ask if a woman has pain, fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, cough or heartburn – none of which will be useful in the market!

I’m very thankful for translators, kind teachers, and patient staff.

Andy is a GP obstetrician living in remote Northern Territory, Australia. He is totally outnumbered by girls in his family - one wife, 3 daughters, 2 chooks.

2 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. Sounds challenging! We’ve been thinking about it all working with people from New Zealand. But the hardest are the Aussies. “Let Stalk Strine” is a useful text book. Like the following extracts. I’m convinced that non verbal is the way to go…

    Airpsly Fair Billis: Quite pleasant.

    Zarf Trawl: Because after all. As in: `Zarf trawl wee rony flesh and blood wennit Saul boiled
    down.’

    Doan Lemmyaf: I do not want to have to. As in: `Arm jew kids in bare
    jet? Emeny times die affter tellyer. Now doan lemmyaff to speak dear
    Ken.’

    Assprad: Excessively preoccupied with domestic order and cleanliness.
    As in: `She’s very assprad – she keeps Rome looking lovely.’ This is a
    feminine adjective only; there does not appear to be any exact masculine
    equivalent, although the noun Hairndiman conveys something of the same
    meaning. Strine women may be assprad; Strine men may be hairndimen; or
    `clever with their hens.’

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