Laban dips a toothbrush in an old Stork fat spread container filled with chain oil and motions toward the bike chains. He then hands me both items.
For the first three weeks of the seminar, I, along with one other student, volunteered at the King’s Daughters bicycle shop in Windhoek. On the first day, I went in eager to learn about bikes and ready to practice the elementary Oshiwambo I had picked up from language classes at the University of Namibia.
But there was a slight problem. The head bike mechanic, Laban, spoke neither English nor Oshiwambo. He could only speak Afrikaans. So Laban would demonstrate the task – fixing brakes, changing tires, or lacing wheels – and we would copy him. The hands-on nature of the work made the language barrier less of an issue, but there were moments – like looking for the correct wrench size – when communicating with words would have been far simpler.
Although English is the official language of Namibia, more than eleven languages are spoken in a relatively small population of 2.3 million. Volunteering at the bike shop provided a glimpse into the highly multilingual character of Namibian society. Customers would start speaking in Herero or Oshiwambo only to realize that they could not communicate with the bike shop workers. Then some would switch to Afrikaans or English. There was also a group of primary school boys who would routinely bring their bikes to the shop and race each other on the sandy terrain, shouting in Damara.
Once the task is finished, I turn to Laban.
After inspecting the chains, he grins and gives me a thumbs-up. And that is enough.