When language reflects life

“Je suis low batt.” In French, this literally means, “I am low battery.” It doesn’t make much sense on its own, but in the context of how Michaela Wrong talked about it in her book, “In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz” it is a phrase that she uses to sum up the great wealth of issues which plague the Congo. It harks back to when the first mobiles arrived in the country, which had a very annoying tendency to die after some 20 minutes of talking. Thus, the speaker would typically always have to tell the listener that they were out of battery and had to either switch phones or go charge. The term took on something of a life of its own and came to mean that something in general had run down.
We are at a point now here in Abengourou where the power cuts (or délestage if you will) have become regimented in that they’re from 01:00 to 09:00 every day which coincides with no water during that time plus another 3-5 hours afterward as the system rebuilds pressure. Living life around this schedule is not what I would call choice, but it is doable, especially as you know that it’s coming.
It just so happens that for the first time today, I heard of someone being asked how late he was out last night to which he replied, “Oh, we were out past-cut.” meaning past 01:00. I’m sure that others are saying to make sure not flush the toilet until post-cut as well. As this way of life has become unfortunately ordinary (which is a shame as the resources do indeed exist) we have taken to incorporating it in to everyday language. No one probably even notices this, but happens all the time like when we say, “go Google it” when we mean to look something up online or “grab a Kleenex” when we mean a tissue.
I don’t have the perception that people in Africa do this any more or any less than anywhere else in the world, but I find it more noticeable given that when it happens, it’s usually a bending of pre-existing words or phrases, whereas in North America or Europe, it’s the straight up adoption of a product name given the constant media and marketing blasts that permeate those societies a good deal more. Of course, many people here in Côte d’Ivoire keep insisting that the word for pen is “bic” instead of “stylo” or to grab a “Lotus” (a local brand) instead of a “mouchoir” so, I suppose the jury is out to some degree even still. We humans do enjoy our products; the power cuts, not so much.

One Reply to “When language reflects life”

  1. Thanks Subsaharska

    I guess the most infamous one i can think of, that relates to certain corners of Africa is 419….

    419 was meant to be the code for white colour crime…..well…not anymore :)

    OMO was one that i realised rather belatedly in life was actually a brand and not the generic name for all washing up liquids….

    In 2000/1 Ghana was sold the idea that by joining the IMF’s “Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative” the country’s debts will be made to disappear overnight. Ghanaians, being a proud people, resisted this to the hilt. The thought of being seen by the rest of the world as being unable to pay off ones loans did not go down well……

    The President at the time though, John Kuffour, soldiered on like a good trooper and went ahead against the will of Ghanaians.

    Well….guess what? For his sins a flag ship overhead bridge project he was constructing (incidentally about a 100 metres from his private residence) changed names overnight to “HIPC Junction”…:)

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