Blank faces met ours as we drove into the petrol station. Expressionless, the men pumped our cars. Until we tried to speak their language. “Molo,” we said in greeting. “Molweni,” he replied. We were practicing the few words we knew in Xhosa, the language of the Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa.
Communicating in South Africa is easy for those of us who speak English. Most South Africans speak at least some English, one of the 11 official languages of the country. But according to the 2001 Census, English is the fifth most common language spoken, outspoken by Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and Sethoto sa Leboa.
During our walking tour of Langa Township, Siviwe, our tour guide taught us a few words and even taught us how to click. Though the rest of us tried, only my daughter is able to click correctly, making the sound with her tongue as she pronounces the hard c sound in the word Xhosa. We learned the simple greeting, “molo,” when meeting one person, or “molweni,” when meeting more than one. And we learned how to say thank you, “enkosi.” As Siviwe brought us into the shantytown homes, we were able to greet those who lived there in their own language and to say thank you for allowing us to see their homes.
“Enkosi,” we said as we gave the man a tip for pumping the gas and cleaning our car windows. He smiled then grinned when my husband asked him if he was a Chiefs fan.
“Go Chiefs!” we all called out from the car, holding up our fingers in the American peace sign, also the sign for one of the biggest soccer teams in South Africa. He laughed and poked his friend who was a fan of the Chiefs biggest rival, the Pirates, and they cheered as we drove away.
We drove toward the coast, passing children walking down the dirt road. As we held our fingers up high with the sign for the Chiefs, they jumped up and down and ran after us yelling, “Chiefs! Chiefs!”
The people at Bulungula Lodge encouraged us to learn a few more words of Xhosa and to communicate with the people we encountered in the village. We learned to respond when someone asked how we were and to ask about their health as well.
I learned to say thank you in Sethotho (“galiboha”), and although my pronunciation was corrected by the women of the village, we all laughed together.
As we moved away from the coast, traveling to other provinces where Xhosa is not spoken and other languages are dominant, our lack of words separated us from the people. We never learned any Afrikaans or any Zulu, relying only on English to get us by. And although we attempted to smile and to talk to those we met, our response was most often a blank stare. Without knowing a few words, we had lost our connection and our individuality, becoming just another tourist in a sea of faces going by.