Bonjour from Benin,
I am approaching the two-week mark of my fellowship in Benin and things are off to a good start! I am working for Alidé, an MFI based in Cotonou, the largest city in Benin. Alidé is a relatively new partner of Kiva and is showing great promise. The Kiva Coordinator at Alidé, my main colleague, is committed to strengthening the partnership and teaching the other staff members how to use Kiva. I have a good feeling that we will work well together.
During these first few weeks, I have definitely noticed the language barrier. I came to Benin with a good, working knowledge of French, but there have been inevitable difficulties. People here in Cotonou speak French, but the accent is unfamiliar and conversations also include many words in Fon, the language native to this region. I often find myself struggling to keep up. Unfamiliar languages are common in almost every fellowship. Even if English is a national language, fellows immerse themselves into cultures that use Swahili, Arabic, Samoan, or Cambodian. There is bound to be frustration for everyone due to communication difficulties.
However, so far, I’ve found that learning a language has an incredible power to foster connections between people. Around the office, I greatly appreciate the patience and grace of Alidé’s staff when I do not completely understand something in French. I’ve seen the hospitality of the Beninese people by their willingness to help me out. Also, whenever I use a word or phrase in Fon, people instantly light up and become eager to teach me more. They appreciate the attempt to understand their language and culture. An instant friendship is born. Using Fon is a great way to gain trust and to create a connection with Kiva borrowers.
The power of language is one simple way that Kiva’s mission to connect people is being implemented. When you are forced to find ways to communicate, you gravitate towards shared beliefs and experiences. I find that when communication is possible, the payoff is rewarding. That reward is the knowledge that I have developed a relationship with someone who grew up in a different country and culture, and speaks a different language. Fostering connections is part of the Kiva experience that fellows, lenders, and supporters all share to some degree. Kiva allows us to understand the importance of engaging the global community. I am fortunate to be a part of such an organization.
Andrew Whiteman is Kiva Fellow (KF8) working in Cotonou, Benin.