Uganda: Opening doors and hearts in Katine

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Jun 21 17:08:58 UTC 2008

Opening doors and hearts in Katine

At my first German language class 18 years ago, I remember the teacher
marching straight in, placing his books on the table and writing a
single line on the chalkboard: "Sprache sind die schlüssel zur welt".
It means, languages are the key to the world. It is a line that came
back to me when I arrived in Katine seven months ago, and came face to
face with a smiling one-year-old – I was unable to say anything to him
that he could understand. Without working knowledge of the Ateso
language, I couldn't open the door to his world.

Although many people in this area speak English, there are many more
who cannot sustain a conversation in it. In order to improve literacy,
the Ugandan ministry of education has introduced a policy that for the
first three years of primary education, children should be taught in
their mother tongue. So I set about learning some Ateso, first by
asking Amref staff for help with simple phrases: How do you greet? How
do you say thank you? What is the word for friend? I later learnt that
my Canadian friend, Chris, had found an Ateso/English phrasebook that
answered many of the questions I had been asking.

Three months later, I have been encouraged by the results. First, in
addition to the book, I have been motivated hugely by the
Ateso-speaking Amref staff. Each time I put together a sentence
inspired by vocabulary from the phrasebook, they cheer and express
surprise at how fast I am learning.Whenever I go out to the field, I
try to introduce myself in the local language, and explain what I am
doing in Katine. I have concluded that languages do not just open
doors to physical areas, they can allow you to walk into people's

The other day, I was covering a training session when the instructor
asked me to introduce myself. Off I shot: "Ekakiror Richard Kavuma.
Aswamai eong kede Guardian lo ejai London. Aiwadikai iyemuto lu
project lo Amref o Katine."The applause that followed left me
encouraged that, not only had my effort been acknowledged, I had
somehow made myself understood. As I put my well-considered sentences
together, I notice that people's moods change. The smiles grow wider
and their interest in me seems to shoot up. It seems that the sight
and sound of a foreigner making an effort to learn the local language
impresses the people in Katine and Soroti.

"Ah, you are now getting the language," a local councillor in Katine
told me recently. "By the time the project ends you will already be an
Ateso." Uganda has over 50 tribes and at any one point you might be
surrounded by people who speak a variety of languages. The other day,
as I drove in the Amref van to Katine, I noticed that only two of the
six people in the car were Ateso. In Katine itself, there are two main
tribes – Ateso and Kumam – who speak the respective languages. So last
month a 75-year-old Kumam man urged me to, "pwonyi Kumam kede" (learn
Kumam as well). Of course I will learn Kumam, I said, and told him
that I started with one because two at a go might confuse me. The
beauty of it is that because the two tribes live side by side and
freely intermarry, many Ateso understand Kumam and vice versa.

At my hotel in Soroti town, staff have volunteered to be both teachers
and cheerleaders. Each time they see me, they make an effort to speak
to me in slow Ateso and wait for my response to see if I have
understood. Although I have considered charging them for the
entertainment I provide, they seem to be really impressed.

One morning, I asked a waitress: "Aibo ejaasi sausage?" (Where are the
sausages?). She stopped, smiled and remarked: "You know you are
becoming really good. When you leave, we are really going to miss you.
You have become like one of us."

Although this has nothing necessarily to do with racism as seen in
South Africa or the stadia of Europe, many of Uganda's tribes use
language terms that refer to people from other tribes. In my own
Luganda, we call them, bannamawanga (people of other tribes), 0while
the Ateso use word amoit (foreigner). When I have been introduced to
groups of people, I have read the word amoit on people's lips. But
with the new language skills I have learnt, I feel ever more at home.

In my office in Kampala, I work with two colleagues who happen to be
from the Teso region. Whenever other colleagues overhear an animated
Ateso conversation, they joke that I cannot have learnt that first
without the aid of a "live dictionary" – a woman.

Despite my protestations and the instant production of my dictionary
and phrasebooks as evidence, it has become a ritual for people to
insist that there must be another dictionary which – in their judgment
– must be female.

But in Katine, the door is starting to open.

Last month I wandered into Katine market and had a chat with an
elderly vendor, who did not speak a word of English. I left her and
her colleagues clapping because I was able to introduce myself and
find out a number of things: that she was selling potato vines at 200
Ugandan shillings per batch; where she lived; how old she was; how
many children she had; and whether she could allow me to take her

Thanks to the small bit of Ateso I have learnt, language is opening
more and more doors.
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