Togo Languages

“Why can’t everyone just speak the same language?” was my son’s blunt observation / question soon after we arrived in Togo.

We currently live in an Anufo speaking region. There are about 70, 000 speakers of this tonal language in the entire world and only recently did this language begin to be written. Thus, there is much variability in meaning of words between families and towns. Most words consist of a consonant and a vowel which are strung together in phrases that might be the length of one of our typical English words. The translator I work with the most in clinic handles the English to Anufo dialogue very well. He is highly valuable to me. He can even revert to other widely spoken languages like Hausa if needed. It gets interesting though if a Moba or Mossi speaking patient from the north or a Gangam speaker from the east or nomadic Fulani shows up. That requires tracking down a hospital employee who knows that specific language. There is a printed list of which employees speak what language and I have found that these other go-betweens can be tracked down quickly.

History taking can can become quite a game of telephone though. When “how long has your abdomen been hurting?” turns into a long conversation between translators and the patient and comes back with the answer “she also says her eyes are stinging, ” you just move on to the physical exam. I am always so pleasantly surprised when a patient (about 1 in 50) answers in Ghanian English and we can talk directly.

Some of the translated answers can really surprise you too. My question - “Where is she from? Can she stay close to the hospital so we can do a post-op follow up next week?” ….. Translator answer - “Yes, she is from Niger but their herd of cows is only half an hour from the hospital right now so it is not a problem for her to come back next week.”

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