“Where are you going this time?” Family and friends asked.
“Well, I can’t exactly pronounce it,” I confessed. “But I can spell it: H-L-A-B-I-S-A.”
“Where?” they chorused.
“It’s a rural area in north-western Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa.”
Blank looks followed by further questioning: “But where in South Africa? I mean which country? Zimbabwe? Zambia?”
“South Africa is its own country!” I exclaimed. “You know…Nelson Mandela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Charlize Theron…”
Fortunately, I was not as geographically-challenged as my American peers. Prior to accepting this position as development executive of a community-based healthcare and rural development NGO, I did some research. Libraries, the internet and even maps could not distinguish where Hlabisa was; regardless, I collected fragments of information about the province of Kwa Zulu Natal.
I was aware that South Africa boasted 11 official languages, but I only had to master one: Zulu. (Or so I thought.)
Despite my attempts at self-instruction and an introductory course in Johannesburg, over the last two years my Zulu has been clumsy at best. But my English—my first language—has been significantly challenged. Not one travel guide or reference book hinted that South African English is its own unique language. English communication proved to be more fallible than my amateur Zulu.
I was pleasantly surprised (and secretly relieved) to discover most of my Zulu colleagues and peers were quite conversant in English. However, almost immediately, in conjunction with clashing accents, the confusion began.