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Ebonyi Tales

Part 2: Miscommunication

The previous evening we’d slept early because there was not much to do back at camp except watch the last of the candles slowly melt. Although I woke up early around 7:30am, most of the other fifteen volunteers were already up and about, washing clothes in plastic bowls and passing the time by playing cards or kicking a ball around. After drinking some bottled water and hanging out with them for a while, Russell and I decided our cultural orientation was at an end and we went out to the street to find some transport to take us to our allocated school. We began walking down the main street of Unwana looking for appropriate vehicles.

“Jockwa!” piped Russell cheerfully as we passed a woman carrying half a bowl of water on her head. The other half had evidently spilled on the floor as she carried it because there was a damp trail left behind in the red-tinted dirt.

“Jockwa,” the woman replied.

During our week stay in the village of Unwana, we had learned several basic expressions that we tried to use as often as possible.

“Onacha!” shouted some children who were playing in some grass by the side of the road. We had earlier learned that this means “White man!”  We simply smiled and waved. We were happy because we would finally be moving to another rural village called Nwofe, which was around a one-hour drive away. There we would begin administering the voluntary student-tutoring project.

It took us the best part of the morning just to find some transport to take us to Nwofe. The best we could do was a hybrid scooter-motorcycle, which was referred to by locals as an Ocada. The problem was, we could only find one Ocada to take both our luggage and ourselves. The driver assured us that this would not be a problem. In retrospect, I think he would have assured us that the moon is square if it meant getting his hands on our money.

The driver hung our suitcases, one from each handlebar, and put our backpacks between his legs. Russell and I got on the back of the Ocada and we began to wonder if we would even make it out of the village. Russell put his last cigarette behind his ear and off we went.

Over hilly, brown-red dirt tracks we drove for more than an hour to the village of Nwofe. When we arrived, dishevelled and weary, Russell got off the back of the bike and reached for the cigarette that he had put there earlier. It was not there. He rubbed his face, jaded and hungry, and some white finger marks on his face revealed that we had not got bronzed suntans after all. We both badly need a bath.

After a restless night sleeping on a concrete floor, the next day we were to attend a meeting in the centre of Nwofe village to talk with the village elders and the PTA to discuss the feasibility of the student-tutoring scheme.

The meeting was being held under a straw roof in the centre of the village. It seemed like the vast majority of the population of the village were gathering to observe the meeting and they waited anxiously to hear us address the village Elders and PTA.

Finally, when everyone seemed ready to begin, Russell stood up and said  “Jockwa”. There was no reply so he sat down again, confused by the lack of response. He looked at me questioningly, so I tried.

“Jockwa,” I said, standing up and looking at the village elders in turn.

“Jockwa, Jockwa,” I said to each and every one of the eight elders and PTA members at the meeting. There was still no reply, only muffled whispers and confused noises that didn’t even sound like words.

 Then I had an excruciating flashback – something that was glossed over in the orientation back in London.

‘There are over five hundred different living dialects in Nigeria, with English being the official second and binding language’

“It’s the wrong bloody dialect,” I whispered to Russell. I stood up again and continued – my face now washed clean, but still as red as the dirt.

“Hello, nice to meet you all. I am Jason and this is Russell. We are here to help your school…”

Click here to continue reading Part 3 of this story... | Go back to Part 1

By Jason J.R. Gaskell, Msc.

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