It happened one fateful night in July, the first time I had the chance to travel with Neno friends to a celebration in one of the other villages. One of the traditions at these events is to “give welcomes”. I am not sure of all of the proper protocol involved, but it seems that people from every village get the chance say something. As a handful of Neno men went up front to take their turn “giving welcomes” someone called out my name, and the friends sitting on the simple wooden bench beside me said they wanted me to go up and say something too. As panic froze my mind into a veritable ice cube, they pushed me to my feet and I was walking up front too, wishing we had practiced for this in a language study session. Thankfully, I was third to last in the line that was arranging itself across the front, in front of the platform instead of on it, so there was a little time to formulate something to say which would hopefully make sense grammatically and be appropriate for the situation. This is what I came up with:
Sisters, brothers. How are you all tonight? Welcome! I am happy to be here to worship Jesus with all of you. That’s it.
Pathetic, I admit. But I would rather give a short, pathetic greeting in the Neno language than talk a lot, in semi-eloquent Portuguese. It proves that I’m trying, at least, even if my efforts are about as lame as attempting to row a boat across the river using a spoon instead of an oar. It demonstrates a respect and appreciation for their language and a refusal to rely on Portuguese as a crutch. At least that’s my perspective on the matter. Who knows what my Neno friends think?
Actually, they gave me a clue regarding their opinion a couple weeks later, when some friends were visiting from another village who had not been at the celebration where I made my public speaking debut. The family who took me along to the celebration, and made me go up front, told their friends that I had “given a welcome” the first night we were there. Although I must relate such observations as speculative because of a very limited understanding of the Neno culture, I will share my conjectures. From my friends/teachers facial expressions and the way they talked about the event, commenting that I spoke only in Neno, not Portuguese, it seemed like they were bragging about me, proud that their little language learner is making progress. Their friends seemed impressed and excited by the news. And I busied myself in studying the dirt floor, letting a combination of embarrasment and reticence prevent my taking the opportunity to ask about proper grammar for that “long sentence,” which I wonder if I butchered…or made mincemeat of, more likely.
And just for the record, it is very normal to end any discourse by saying, “that’s it.” Actually, that might be the only acceptable conclusion. In my speech, you could translate it, “That’s all, folks.” I literally had no more words to say at that point. Hopefully by next time I get to try my hand (err…mouth and nose and vocal cords) at public speaking, I will have learned a few more phrases suitable to such situations.