The language barrier

I have been raised in a country other than my birth country. I had to speak a 3rd language on the markets, a 2nd language in school and my first language at home. I  spent 70% of my day listening to a 4th language that left me clueless as my classmates and teachers chatted along in the classes, corridors and recreational areas.
Swahili, English, Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali. You would think that after over a decade of being challenged by language barriers, I could live anywhere.

None of my past experiences  prepared me for Portuguese!


Towards Mozambique

So you may not be able to imagine the horror I faced when confronted by an immigration/army officer at the Mozambican/Tanzanian border who after asking, “documento?” Followed up with, “refreshco?” And actually grabbed the money my sister had in her hands which she intended to buy voucher from the shop across.

That was the beginning of the troubles with Portuguese.

These events took place in our coast to coast adventure which begun from Kilimanjaro to Dar-es-salam and down the Southern coast of Tanzania to Mozambique and finally South Africa.

We arrived in Palma after a 2 hour or so motor bike ride from the border, it didn’t need a genius to realise the open corruption and a possible security instability in the region. There were several army combat uniformed military at short intervals along the road. Luckily we passed off as locals because we had no luggage and dressed appropriately. We didn’t suffer any harassment but our Tanzanian-Mozambican driver warned us to be vigilant in our onward journey.


200 MZN lunch

The challenge of not knowing the language hit the nail home at lunch when we couldn’t ask for the menu or the price of food in a restaurant that eventually ripped us off- we paid 250 Miticais for a plate of rice and fish (which was actually scrapped off from the Sufuria) only to find that a similar plate costs only 50 Miticais. This was a result of trusting the bus driver who kindly got us a free ride to the restaurant and insisted that it is the best in the area.

Not wanting to suffer further losses we decided to sleep in the Masjid for the night. We would be starting our journey at 4 am anyways, a little discomfort didn’t matter. By God’s grace, a Swahili speaking Mozambican family recognised our plight and hosted us for the night. Due thanks to the diplomacy extended by our fellow Tanzanians in particular Zanzibaris who have done commended service as well as trade with the people of Palma. Being able to talk in my mother tongue in a country that was now a source of fear was comforting. We learnt a lot about the culture, the people and their struggles. Our host went the extra mile to teach us basic words and phrases that we would need to pass off as locals. Most important lesson was to keep low key.

Palma was the best case scenario as a good number of people spoke Swahili so it felt like walking in one of Tanzania’s coastal villages.

As a precaution and quite out of instincts, we booked a Tanzanian owned bus to Maputo because the staff spoke Swahili otherwise we had no idea what people were talking about- there was a time when everyone was upset about something and other times they were all laughing- we had no idea why? It felt like being put in a bus of Klingons without a translator.


Trying to download a Portuguese phrases app

Even though the bus stopped on several occasions at which our fellow travellers would buy snacks and drinks, we had to starve for hours until we arrived at the designated rest area because we couldn’t understand the prices the hawkers were chanting. It was safer buying when you weren’t on the move.


“Cinco, cinquenta, cem, dez, trinta”

With sufficient hunger, I could eventually say, “desh batates e franjo” in convincing Portuguese accent after standing for about 10 minutes at a food stall – a result of my survival tacts – paid attention to what the other travellers said.
I figured “batates” was potatoes but had no idea that “franjo” was chicken until we received the order. Then we learnt, “arroz”.  Of course if we had google translate life would be easier but network was as bad as it is in my work place. We had a Portuguese app whose words didn’t sound close enough to the Mozambican Portuguese. It’s like owning a British English speaking app in Nigeria.

In less than 48 hours we learnt the numbers; five, fifty, hundred, ten, thirty. So paying for lunch and subsequently, dinner, was a breeze.

Several hours spent in the confinement of a moving vehicle full of talkative travellers and several military check points forced our educated brains to learn and understand a few more words that were not numbers.

“mostrar seus documentos”,

” Com licença”,

” Desculpe-me”,


Despite my brains attempt to empower it’s owner by trying to absorb as many phrases as it possibly could under the circumstances, my psyche was in disarray; I may have had silent heart attacks everytime the officer came into the bus, “Bom dia?!”


The bottom line is, not knowing a language is a threat to one’s sense of security – you can’t express yourself, you can’t understand what’s said to you- it puts you in a state of apprehension.

Mozambique is a beautiful country however traveling across mozambique was threatening to a Swahili who speaks English. It would probably be less of a hassle if there were less army combat uniformed soldiers and open corruption.


The beauty of sleep is that it transcends the boundaries of spoken language

This journey like other journeys has taught me valuable lessons and unlatched the language center in my brain.

Being able to speak and understand a language is a blessing we take for granted.


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