Lost in Translation


The realisation that I felt an easy connection to the Anglophone countries dawned only after I stepped on to the Francophone shores. The Francophone communities and places were very different from the Anglophone countries. The language, of course, was the first difference and for most people this remains the central focus of coming to terms with the Francophone. However, it is a wholly different way of life and the experience is nothing short of interesting.

To begin with, any seasoned traveller would know that the plug points and their sockets were different in different countries. I had known round plug-legs in India, but it was different in the Francophone countries, the socket pins were round but the plug point in Francophone countries had a ‘mandatory earth’ and that stood in the way of any inter-usability between Anglophone devices and Francophone power points.

In Francophone communities, it was not easy to come across roof top water tank; in contrast, it was a common feature in all Anglophone architecture. The Francophone system managed to supply water to its communities – practically without fail. Water tanks were not required. Anglophone city water systems were never 24/7; water was supplied only for a few hours a day. Water tanks were a necessity and they needed to be built into the basic plans of the houses and all habitable structures. The Francophone countries also managed to supply 24/7 electricity to its urban centres. Private generators were unheard of and there was no supply of domestic generators available. Anglophone countries had no guarantee of power, domestic and small-scale generators were a part of life, and many a business made good living for their owners and employees by dealing in generators and their maintenance. The Francophone citizens would consider overhead water tanks and private generators (they call them "Groupe") as a sign of "living on the farm" – away from organised city life!

Bread is another point of difference between the Francophones and the Anglophones. ‘Pain baguette’ was the main bread in Francophone countries, it needed soft wheat flour (French wheat!) and was sold through a fairly secure distribution channel. The baguette was iconic bread for Francophones and they enjoyed the golden crust. However, for the Anglophones, it was too crusty on the outside and they took time to understand how it was best eaten. The English bread was an uncut loaf, sometimes lying uncovered on a rickety table, to be sold on street-sides. Not always a very secure food supply chain. Good bread was also available sliced and packed. It required the more expensive, hard winter wheat as a base for its best preparation. The Francophone also made English bread and called it pain de mie. It was never the ‘English bread’ and always disappointed if one compared with the English bread. The Anglophone made baguettes and hardly ever got it right – the difference was the flour that was available in respective locations was not suitable for the other side’s bread. Once we came across this fine café, pastry and bread place in Accra and were surprised at the very high quality of French breads available with them. The woman who ran the place told us that she was from Abidjan, her baker was from Cote d’Ivoire and she got her flour and yeasts from Cote d’Ivoire! Largely, the Anglophones made their ‘English bread’ and then some places like Ghana had their very special ‘tea bread’. The baguette was the generic bread in Francophone, but every bakery also made a variety of other shapes and types of bread, sometimes up to twenty different types. It was very common to see breads shaped as tortoises or alligators in a Francophone bakery.

Once I was caught up in Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. I had to stay a few days in there for some business and this period included a weekend. Some of my business associates, typically in the kind traditions of African dealings, kept me socially busy all those days and I carry warm memories of lunches at homes and conversations over beer overlooking the lake. A self-deprecating statement that one of my hosts made during those happy interactions, and one that can even be found painted across some public vehicles in Africa was "There is problem about time and problems in Africa…….both are in good supply". That statement often came back to me over the years and while in a light-hearted way it was easy to agree with the statement, it did not describe Africa at all to a new visitor. I was again reminded of that statement when I connected with a friend from those parts recently. A lovely evening reminded me that Africa was so much about the charm of people and the interactions; it was about swapping stories and anecdotes. "There is no problem about stories and anecdotes in Africa…..you will find them in good supply". I will borrow a story from one of those interactions to spice up this conversation about Anglophone and Francophone cultures in Africa.

My friend made a road trip somewhere in East Africa. Actually, it is about an Anglophone country and from my experience, it could have happened in any of the Anglophone countries in Africa. The friend decided to go along with an acquaintance from those parts in a car that had seen many a mile on African roads. Along the way, they made some hasty decisions about ignoring a petrol station for topping up the tank and regretted this 100KMs later when they needed to top up. The petrol station they stopped at did not have fuel and he told them that there was no fuel along their way for quite some time. It was now an easy decision to stop and wait for a jerry can of fuel that the petrol station man offered to arrange from a nearby farm. Once the fuel came and the transaction was completed, the simple, Africa suited car, refused to start up. A screwdriver was critical to access the spark plug and the car did not have it in its tools. There was a mechanic shop at the petrol station, but since the station had not had fuel for two days, the mechanic had decided to make a short trip to a neighbouring village. The saviour was the boy selling oranges who had a rugged and not very sharp knife. This simple tool would serve as a screwdriver that day; and it did step up well into the new role. My friend and his companion were happy to be ready for the journey ahead and the orange seller was duly compensated for the use of his knife. At this moment, the orange seller then said that he had a "declaration to make," from here on, he would be a mechanic and not sell oranges any longer. The orange seller had discovered that through a mere lending of his knife to the stranded motorists, he had made more money than he would make in two days selling oranges and he decided to be a mechanic from then on.

The story of the orange seller’s story about his new career choice is for me very typical of the Anglophone system. The system did not train people for specific roles and youngsters, after a ‘general education’, were free to choose whatever they wanted to do. In many ways, it taught the Anglophone education system product to ‘not say No’ to roles and opportunities. The same person could choose to be a waiter, a sous-chef, a hairdresser, a tailor, a plumber, a bricklayer or a mechanic. It would also show up in the work output in his early years!

In the Francophone system, I was always impressed that they had specialised education and training systems. Youngsters either studied for their specialisation or did a rigorous apprenticeship in their trade and again I am talking about the simple and common trades like those of hairdressers, dressmakers, waiters, and carpenters. The person studied and trained to step into his trade. The flip side of the coin here was that an orange seller in Francophone would not ever be likely to make the declaration that the Anglophone orange seller made on the day he lent his knife to my friend! To switch trades, in Francophone systems, the candidate would have to go through his due training and apprenticeship.

There was an easy culture of ‘intrapreneurship’ in the Anglophone systems and it was not difficult to train an employee into a new role in this system. He was mentally not closed to the idea of doing new things and learning new skills. The Francophone system offered trained staff and they brought many advantages when we set up new operations – we did not have to spend as much time in training and development for the simple roles. The gap in training in the simple trades showed up easily in the Anglophone system; a carpenter who came on an appointment to the house or office in Anglophone systems could easily be missing a basic tool in his kit box. This was impossible in the Francophone system. It was a happy discovery for me that across my interactions, while the Anglophones and the Francophones found themselves out of place in each other’s’ cultures, both the sides saw the good on the other side and appreciated the other sides’ ‘advantages’. Some of my well-established Francophone friends felt that the Anglophones inherited ‘political independence’ in their system and this was missing in Francophone, this was of course an opinion that wasn’t easy to clarify and prove. Commercially, there was a steady stream of Francophone commercants who would regularly make their way to their neighbouring Anglophone markets for their purchases – Kumasi, Accra, Alaba (Lagos State), Banjul. The haphazard Anglophone markets were very active with a variety of products that attracted customers from neighbouring countries – specially the Francophone countries. On education front too, there were enough students from the Francophone countries who would go to the Anglophone colleges and institutions to study – this flow, like the direction of the commercants to the Anglophone markets, was not reciprocated by the Anglophone students.

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