For the first time in my life I have immersed myself in a place where my first language is not the primary form of communication (at least outside the other students). Since my arrival to Tanzania I have studied kiswahili vigorously, determined to connect with the non-english speaking people around me – most of whom are our staff. The first few weeks were beyond frustrating. I didn’t know many words, I got embarrassed when I couldn’t say what I wanted to, and the staff didn’t seem interested. But once they realized my efforts they immediately were invested in helping me. I learned a ton of kiswahili in a few short weeks. Since then, however, life has gotten busy and I haven’t had the time I want to put into language study. Somehow, though, I realized my communication skills have still been improving. If I haven’t been actively studying, how could that be?
I realized this morning during cook crew that I have gained an extra set of communication skills here, above and beyond kiswahili – skills in physical communication. Half my relationships with the staff are based around eye conversations, body language, touch and sound. I will spend hours with them comfortably and realize we didn’t actually talk about anything at all. I have taken to whistling, winking and gesturing to convey messages. But above and beyond that I have become hyper-aware of the body language of those around me. I have learned how to read someones feelings through their posture, requests through eye contact and whistles, jokes through winks, and above all, affection through passing touches – a handshake here, a hug there, gentle pats on the back and shoulder squeezes. Through this new form of communication I have become sensitive to the conditions and needs of the people around me. As a result, I have formed new kinds of relationships that are almost more meaningful than any words could achieve.
At home we always say “communication is key,” but maybe we should consider that sometimes more than one form of it is necessary.