In the Field: What to do When You Don’t Speak Swahili

This post is part of a series by dMBA students as part of their Social Venture summer course. For context and introduction, click here.By Eric Persha

Swahili translation, please??

By Olivia Nava

I become hyper aware of human-to-human communication when I’m in a foreign country. Communication ranges from miming to casual conversing to sharing complex theories and ideas. So far, our time in Tanzania has employed all types, many times all at once just to communicate one simple idea. Or concept, like solar electrification.

As design thinkers, observation is a key strength. It becomes even more important when we don’t speak Swahili and need to collect data about the very people with whom we can’t converse. English is widely taught in schools here and many people have a functional understanding of it, but we realized quickly that people either did not like to speak it or had a difficult time understanding us, probably both. Initially, we were content with utilizing our powers of observation and thinking insightfully about what we saw without the chatter that surrounds us in our “normal” lives– that lasted about one day.

The three of us enjoy the people thing. We like to talk, joke and ask questions, in essence: be among the people of the world. While it is fun to watch my teammates mime, make efforts in Swahili and try multiple ways of saying the same thing, this is no way to collect rich data. And, while we have been fortunate to speak at length about the energy and electrification experiences of several English-fluent Tanzanians, they alone would not suffice for our research objectives. These folks have been key in helping us think through the cultural and socio-political contexts for which we are conducting research. But, to truly understand the needs of all Tanzanians, we needed to speak to those who know little to no English. We wouldn’t be capturing our target market segment without this majority group. Our solution was to do what any proper field researcher would do: employ the ability to communicate.

In the absence of a common spoken language, how do we find out how much kerosene a person uses in a month and how far they have to go to buy it?

Insert: Glory Baltarazy

Glory in action


Glory is our new Tanzanian best friend. She was initially introduced to us by a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend. That’s not an exaggeration. We found her because we needed someone to help us through a home-stay opportunity that we were setting up in a rural part of Tanzania south of Dar es Salaam. At first we thought we only needed a translator for Swahili, but it turned out her second highest use was as a cultural ambassador to help us gain trust with our host family. Otherwise, what form of communication do we use to communicate that we’re a trustworthy individuals?

Glory has been fun and indispensable to work with because she is our younger Tanzanian equivalent. She’s a fresh college graduate looking for work. She’s an urbanite who is attached to her cell phone. In addition to the translation, it’s been important to have a local liaison to help us through all the little questions and impressions that come up along the way in our research. We can test our cultural assumptions with her and she gets us closer to more accurately interpreting our observation. With Glory at our side, we increase our ability to provide a comfortable experience for our interviewees, a key to gaining good responses. And, she always gets a good laugh at our attempts at Swahili in public. But then again, we give all Tanzanians a good chuckle at our attempts at their language. Actually, this manner of making a fool of one’s self is a pretty effective way to gain ground in trustworthiness.

“Thank you” also goes a long way, especially when it’s one of the few Swahili words you know… Asante sana!

The “Social Ventures – Energy in Africa” series follows three MBA in Design Strategy students in their Social Venture summer course. Starting with research and fieldwork conducted in and around Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Anna Acquistapace, Olivia Nava and Eric Persha explore how business can be used to create positive social impact. California College of the Art’s MBA in Design Strategy is a groundbreaking program preparing the next generation of innovation leaders through a curriculum that unites design methodologies, business fundamentals, leadership and systems thinking. You can follow along with the series here.

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