Thursday, April 9, 2009


My company is entirely a local operation. I'm the only expat in the entire outfit. As I'm fond of saying, it's "1800 Afghans and me."*

*The reaction that gets from other expats at the fancy parties in their comfy villas is priceless. One would think that I just told them that I lived in a cave with wolves, which is admittedly perhaps not too far off the truth.

Recently however, I have priviliged to spend a fair amount of time around South Africans*, with whom we are working on a couple of projects. Their experience and skills are immensely valuable to me for operation planning, and to my guys for tactical training. They also have one other key advantage, often overlooked but extremely useful in this environment: their language.

*Alternately known as Safers, or Safirs or Boers (pronounced "boor").

Afrikaans is an odd language, sort of a creole version of Dutch, with some elements of German, Zulu and English sprinkled throughout. Absolutely incomprehensible to most people, although those who speak Dutch or German* have some chance of understanding it.

*I speak a small amount of German, enough to find my way around Vienna and order food in a restaurant. Just enough to catch the occasional word in Afrikaans, but not enough to actually understand anything.

The fact that almost no one else speaks or understands Afrikaans allows the Safers to communicate with each privately and securely even in a room full of people. They often will drop into their native tongue right in the middle of a conversation, leaving the rest of us to wonder what they're talking about and slightly resentful at the possibility of private collusion. This is especially uncomfortable when they exchange a few quick words in Afrikaans, break out in riotous laughter, and then turn back to the group as if nothing has happened. Can't tell if they're talking about me, or just remembering a funny bit from the pub last night.

Still, as uncomfortable as it can be, the ability to switch back and forth from Afrikaans provides a mode of personal communication invulnerable to penetration. Better than the DoD's best radio encryption. I confess, I'm a little jealous.

All of this occurs to me because I'm almost constantly aware of linguistics differences, a result of communicating by hand signals, broken Dari, and simplified English. Such is my life nowadays.

1 comment:

Rob said...

Dude, it's Saffers. It's a play on the K word.

Enjoying the blog.