Language barriers limiting growth across Africa

I opened the proverbial ‘can of worms’ recently at a pan-African conference held in Livingston, Zambia. I intended to initiate clever conversation with the lead French interpreter when I asked him what he thought about the speeches and the presentations that he had spent a week translating for our Francophone compatriots.

His answer came in the form of a question and was both blunt and damning. “Why do you treat your Francophone neighbours like step children, as if their point of view is unimportant?” he asked. We were relaxing by the bar at the end of the day’s proceeding and he spoke loud enough to prick the ears of other French speakers nearby who proceeded to approach and participate in the ambush that he had initiated.

I was outnumbered, and in broken English with saturated French accents, they tore mercilessly at me with a wrath that should have been reserved for the Queen. In this case they singled me out as her sole representative even though we had split ways since Kenya had acquired its independence from Great Britain over 50 years ago.

Their point was simple. If we are to be equal partners while pursuing initiatives across Africa then we should always create an even playing field where philosophy, case studies and proposals can be shared by anyone irrespective of language group, and these should be easily understood by all. Simply providing translation services for a conference that has been designed in English does not create an equitable environment.

They drove their point home like a heavy boot to the backside, and in stride with Saint Paul, the scales fell from my eyes. I realized that in the boardrooms across the Anglophone countries, as companies considered commercial opportunities beyond their borders, we had erected sky high mental barriers that shielded us from the Francophone nations, and vice versa.

In a modern world fully equipped with Google Translate and other language apps, there is no reason at all not to target a country that has chosen to speak a different European language as a result of their colonial history. Business models don’t necessarily get lost in translation in the same way that humor does, however funny that might sound.

Africans may even go as far as pointing fingers and accusing one another of being a different type of European. I once found myself in that position when I pointed out that my Senegalese host was too ‘French’ because she failed to offer me afternoon tea. She likewise emphasized that I was too ‘English’ for her tastes.

In another pan-African conference in Nairobi over ten years ago, one of the delegates, when asking a question during the proceedings, chose to make a meal of it and spoke eloquently in French for over 15 minutes. The majority were suitable embarrassed because we did not understand a word of what he said.

When the contents of his rant were eventually translated to us by the MC who coincidently spoke French, we were even more ashamed because he detailed the pains that the Francophone delegates had gone through to attend this conference and yet the organizers had the audacity not to make any arrangement to cater for the language differences.

As a group, they were declaring their intention to march out and return home. It is funny how money for interpreters and translation equipment can appear out of thin air when people yell out ultimatums in a ‘foreign’ language.


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