Language Barriers

I went to Tamil Nadu, South India, to set up projects for Trade Not Aid when I was twenty six. There was no internet.

Tamil Nadu was a poor state back then, and there were many villages where perfectly formed newborn baby girls could be taken to be murdered. The parents of these ill-fated babe in arms could never afford a dowry to pay for them to be married off in the future.

Unmarried women in Tamil Nadu were largely considered worthless. They had no freedom… no life beyond the home.

Dowrys were illegal, but the patriarchal view of woman as worthless without a man was perniciously pervasive, and the dowry system persisted in spite of the legislation. I even witnessed a beautiful young, educated teenage woman being married off to her Uncle within the organisation where I was working. There was no dowry for her, so a marriage to her father’s brother was arranged.

This beautiful young woman worked in the office and played a crucial role within the organisation.

It was called Social Change & Development.

She left her job after getting wed-locked.

In the Trade Not Aid project I worked with women with disabilities… Polio, Leprosy and Mental Health Issues… These women were supremely lucky to be alive, but they were not educated. They did not speak English, and, being English myself, I certainly didn’t speak Tamil.

The first word I learned in Tamil was COUPAI. Rubbish.

Imagine. There are no rubbish bins. No rubbish collection. And I learn the word rubbish, which they can barely visualize. But, it was vital to the success of the project.

In the beginning I used the word COUPAI to instantly trash the substandard work that these disabled women produced.

It was HARSH!

I cried every night on the walk home from the disabled unit. But, I wasn’t just battling with a language barrier. I was also dealing with a massive cultural divide.

I saw, from visiting so many Western initiatives set up in Southern India to provide the poorest people with work and self-reliance, that I had to overcome the difference in our cultural outlooks if my projects were to succeed.

I surmised, from how all of these other projects were miserably failing, that a disastrous opinion amongst the producers of the products was the cause… This was essentially: if it vaguely resembles what it’s meant to look like, and it just about does the job it’s created for, but you can make as many of them as possible in the shortest amount of time possible, then that’s PERFECT!

The products being made needed to be of the highest standard and entirely uniform in their size and shape. They were to be sold in the West, of course.

In the beginning the products were misshaped and overly laboured. I couldn’t accept them, and I desperately needed to demonstrate this without language.

In the first weeks of the projects I would bring all of the women together and guide them to form a circle. I placed a receptacle in the centre and would then start inspecting the day’s work.

I would shake my head and say COUPAI, and then I’d hand the item to the neighbouring woman, gesturing for her to explain to the maker what was wrong with it.

This is when I came up against another cultural barrier. Beautiful young Indian women have a real problem criticising other people!

But I made them do it anyway.

And, when they had finished, I relieved them of the faulty item and would place it in the receptacle in the centre, repeating the word, “coupai”.

Eventually, these gentle women learned to accept the criticism in a constructive way and started to ask their work mates how they had overcome their production issues. And, finally, they even began to smile when the light bulb moments occurred, knowing that some of their struggles would be over the next day.

Mine is the only project that I am aware of that succeeded in the twenty or so that I visited.

It was a wonderful experience, but a painful and altogether harrowing process in the beginning, owing to the language barrier.

Duolingo would have been so very useful back then!

But, despite everything, an immense sense of love enveloped us. I loved the women and, despite my apparent rudeness, my dreadful cruelties and my weird Western outlook, I was loved in return.

Remembering that love moves me to this day.