Importance of language

It is very important to learn the language in order to help effect change in a community.

I remembered that again recently. A young family came to be “treated” which usually just means have their blood pressure taken. The husband said in the local language, “can you check my wife…she is very skinny.” I checked her blood pressure (not too bad) and measured her arms (wow 18 cm, way below the danger line for malnutrition). She’s nursing, but her eyelids and fingernails didn’t look terribly anemic.


I haltingly said “I have no medicine, but buy her milk, eat oil, and sugar, eat beans, eat eggs, eat pumpkin, eat dark greens. Those are good.” It of course, wasn’t that smooth. He asked, “it’s good to eat oil?” “Yes” was all I could say.

Not, “yes, if you are malnutritioned, you need to mix oil and sugar with milk and drink it. Do not buy antibiotics or malaria medicine, buy an egg or milk packet instead. Buy a bottle of coconut oil. Or take our coconuts, and make it yourself.” So, I went ahead and said it all very clearly in the national language. Over and over.
But, his eyes didn’t have the light of understanding in them. They went away.

I couldn’t DO anything for them. We aren’t at the place where we are ready to help start a re-feeding program, or chase down the government funds for a refeeding program. We aren’t ready to subsidize milk. I did give her some milk to drink while they were here…its my new policy…to give milk to every small-armed person that comes my way (am I the only one that sounds funny to?). But, the sheer number of people that we are dealing with is overwhelming. Maybe I should start giving out black bean, banana, spinach, and pumpkin seedlings.

We did free medicine for awhile (a donor gave it to the church, and asked me to destribute it). But, the whole program was so full of problems…one such being: people need to stop taking SO much medicine, and start treating their whole selves. One pill won’t solve everything, and two pills REALLY won’t solve everything (am I the only one that sounds funny to?).

Anyways I am off my premise…even in something as simple as taking blood pressure…or helping to change a communities mindset about something like food and medicine…it’s so necessary to know the language.

I remember when we first moved here, someone said that their belly hurt. Since the word for belly is the exact same word for toothless in the national language, I said something like “oh I’m sorry about your teeth.” I don’t feel too bad though, because the government nurse who occasionally comes up to treat people, did a similar thing. When the patient said their belly hurt, she gave them a pain pill for their teeth. And then she lost a bit of credibility in their minds.

So, it seems to me that programs that work and last (even when the change agent has left), seem to have something in common…they were started by people who valued the local language and culture…and had spent time to understand the issue at the heart of the problem. AND they empowered the local people to continue on.

*photos from another visit, these friends are all healthy nutritionally, but one of the women has some mental health needs, and they all wanted to have their scabies rashes checked out. Mental health is an area where I am really NO help, and it makes me very nervous.

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