As most of you would know, nearly a year ago, we packed ourselves up and headed to Texas for a period of training and then met the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest non-profit hospital ship in the Canary Islands. Since then we travelled to Madagascar and have been in the port of Toamasina since late October 2014.
On arrival in Las Palmas, Canary Islands in August 2014, I became acutely aware of how isolated we were living in Australia and how far away from the rest of the world we really are! The most striking example of this is in language. In Australia, I had no reason to learn a second language, although I did study Indonesian for a year and French for another year whilst at school – a really long time ago! All that I have to show for that study is I can count in Indonesian and greet people and similarly with French. Although I could also order strawberry ice-cream in French if I really wanted to!!
Now I am living in Madagascar and have been regularly frustrated with my inability to speak, interact and connect with patients that I photograph day in and day out. The languages here are Malagasy (although there are 18 cultural groups and with each of those comes a different dialect), French and some English.
In order to do our jobs, we work with a group of Malagasy “day crew” who are paid to come to work on the ship on a daily basis but are not crew who live here. They are fabulous and allow us all to do our jobs seamlessly. The extra bonus is that they are so willing to share phrases and words in Malagasy/French. It is so much fun and it is amazing how much you can pick up and use. The problem I am having now is that I frequently have conversations in all three languages at once when one or another of the languages fails me and I end up drawing on all that I know!
Hence the title of this blog – Je suis une (French for “I am a”) mpakasary (Malagasy for “photographer”).
I’ve decided to do something about it. Two weeks ago, I called into the local Alliance Française and I signed up for a course of individual tuition from now until we leave Madagascar in early June. I had my first two lessons this week and it has been fun, challenging and I have already learnt a lot. It helps that my teacher, Professor Jeanine, speaks French, Malagasy and very little English and we work our way through misunderstandings and teachings by sometimes drawing on all three languages as well.
The Malagasy people love it when you speak anything in their language and are willing to try to speak to them. They usually roar with laughter, but most often they are in awe and honoured that you know and try to speak even a little bit.
So tomorrow, I start a one hour a week Malagasy lesson with six of the children from the Academy as part of a Student Life Program that happens each term at school. I’m excited and am looking forward to practicing and speaking in just one language at a time 🙂