In Nasir, it is common place for girls to get married in their late teen years and start bearing children soon after (a man wants as many children as he can have). Very rarely will you find an unmarried Nuer female over 20 years old. Accordingly, in Nuer culture, a girl is not considered a woman until she is married. So, naturally, some of the first phrases we learned in Nuer had to do with basic introductory conversations—What is your name? Where do you live? Do you have a husband? How many children do you have?
Every afternoon, Laura, Cass and I spend a few hours out in the community practicing our Nuer with neighbors or people in the market. After a few afternoons visiting with people, we realized that everyone was very interested in our marriage situation. In fact, so interested that fairly often people would ask if we had a husband before even asking what our name was. I thought this to be a bit strange at first, but with a culture so centered around childbearing, I just figured it was a practical question.
So, Laura and I both got very familiar with the phrase “han ka na kwen” meaning “I am not married." After giving this answer, it was almost always followed by laughter. At first I felt a little like I was being made fun of, but then reasoned that they were probably just laughing because I was a “nyal midit," a big/old girl, since I was not married.
About six weeks went by with this being one of the first questions asked. Sometimes it was presented in strange situations. For instance, one time as I walked back from the market, I began to practice my Nuer with some young boys. Of course while chatting, one of the first things they asked was if I was married. Why did they want to know? I was confused.
Then one day, while in a language session, some light was shed on the situation. We discovered there was another way, besides what we had learned, to say “what is your name?”—ciotdu pronounced chiodu—. It sounds very similar to “do you have a husband?”—cowdu pronounced chooowdu—.
With the combination of our limited Nuer and the difficulty we have determining and pronouncing tones, words that seem vastly different to the Nuer are vaguely different to us. (Try saying elbow and eyeball…they sound very similar. English does it too!) So for a good six weeks, when asked, “What is your name?” I simply responded “I am not married."
And this is why I got laughed at…not because I am a 24 year old girl.
We all got a good laugh out of this, and I’m sure many more language mishaps will occur in the future. Thankfully, there is grace, and these mess-ups sure make for great learning experiences.