Of Language and Culture

I woke at 4 in the morning to the most dreadful scream I had ever heard. It was not just the screaming but the uncontrollable wailing that went along with it that was so disconcerting. This went on for quite a while and I laid in bed staring into the dark wondering what was going to happen next. I didn’t hear anyone else in the house get up or doing anything so I stayed where I was.

This happened the first night of my week long stay in Los Pwèt with Pastor Camelus and his family as part of a language and cultural immersion week; and immersion it was.

Later on that day I learned that a lady who lived a few houses over had died during the night and the mourning had begun immediately. Pastor Camelus was asked to assist with the funeral to be held that same day so I went along to experience a Haitian funeral. The service was held in a very small typical rural Haitian church which seated maybe one hundred people. The coffin balanced on 2 chairs at the front of the church. The source of the loud wailing came primarily from three ladies sitting at the front of the church who I assumed were daughters of the deceased. From what I understood of the eulogy, this lady was much loved and will be missed. The crying went on and off through the service but I began to realize that it was coming from all corners of the church, and the crying was guttural, screaming and sobbing, not something I am used to. I was struck by the huge difference in how Haitians and Canadians publicly mourn.

Los Pwèt is a small village on the road from Mirebalais to the Dominican Republic border at Elisa Pina. Back in November Pastor Camelus invited me to come and stay with his family for language and culture learning and to visit with some of the ECRH (Christian Reformed Church of Haiti) pastors in the area. With a full slate of other work-related things going the first few months of this year last week was my first opportunity to get away for a full week to do this.

Pastor Camelus and his wife were wonderful hosts

Pastor Camelus and his wife were wonderful hosts

While language learning was the predominate reason for my stay, the cultural experience was even more eye opening.  The pastor and his wife currently have ten children living at home.  They have twelve children – eight biological and four adopted.  Two are married but one of these couples also lives with their three children on the property at the back of the main house. With a number of neighbourhood children who wandered in and out of the house, it took me four days just to figure out who was who.  I finally went through the entire family with the pastor’s daughter, Camela, to just get it straight.

Two of my dialogue coaches. Actually they mostly just giggled at me

Two of my dialogue coaches. Actually they mostly just giggled at me

Camela was also my pwofesè for the week. I spent two to three hours in the afternoon with her going over lessons, reading through and translating Bible passages or just asking questions back and forth. During the other waking hours I worked on my Kreyol lessons, visited with some pastors, attended a youth evening event, visited the pastor’s garden, spoke with other members of the family or just sat and listened to the animated conversations going on around me.

There are times, when frustration sets in, that I begin to question if this language learning is for me – and I wonder if I will ever get it.  It seems the words I have been learning just will not come out of my mouth in coherent sentences. But I think this week helped me move forward.

I hope to have the opportunity to do this again soon and am confident that these immersion experiences will help develop my language skills as well as gain a greater appreciation and knowledge of the culture.

How about you? Do you have any eye-opening cross –cultural experiences to share?

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