Friday, November 13, 2020

Africa Memoir: A Top-Secret Dictionary Project


I was sitting in a meeting in a high-ceilinged room, with six expatriate workers gathered around me. Three agencies were represented in that room, and out of the three, only one—the Catholic Language Institute—was operating completely in the open, with the full knowledge of the Islamist government. Another was the one I worked for—an organization which had to hold its secrets tightly, and which I had been forbidden to name aloud in conversations, not even with the use of code words. The third agency was one that I knew well—one of the highest-profile linguistics organizations in the world. I knew that its partner agency, which did Bible translation work, was not a name I could mention there. But I received a bit of a shock, a reminder of just how sensitive my work was, when I dropped the name of the linguistics organization into our conversation, as I spoke of my gratitude for being able to work with them. As soon as its name slipped out of my mouth, the Catholic leader, Father Pierre, stood up and shuffled quickly over to the doors of the room, which had been standing open to the hallway outside. He swung them shut and locked them. I doubt that there were any government spies lingering about the hall, but it was a stark reminder of the risks involved in what we were doing.

~ ~ ~ 

Over my first few days in Sudan, Ernest and Aaron introduced me to the project I would be working on. As it turned out, I was going to be more independent than I had envisioned. Ernest and Aaron were hard at work setting up their medical aid and development agency, and Anne was involved with teaching English in a nearby school, but I would be on my own, doing a project for which I only felt marginally qualified. I was going to put together a bilingual dictionary that English-speakers could use to learn Sudanese Arabic. The only trouble was that I did not know Sudanese Arabic, and yet here I was being asked to write a dictionary for the language. (It’s a dialect different enough from modern standard Arabic to require some extra resources, and the only existing dictionary was an antiquated British one from the colonial days.)

But I did have a few skills I could bring to bear. The focus of my undergraduate degree was in linguistics, and I had been trained by members of the linguistics organization mentioned above—a group which pioneered the production of dictionaries, grammars, literacy resources, and Bible translations all around the world. In terms of practical, on-the-field ethnographic-linguistic research, this organization outpaces all other academic or evangelistic linguistic efforts in the world, and by a wide margin. Much of my work in Sudan would also be done in contact with the small handful of their workers based in Khartoum, all of whom were excited about the prospect of a much-needed Sudanese Arabic dictionary. I was proud to be working alongside them, since my own parents’ missionary work in Brazil had been done with the same organization.

I was given the use of two computers—the old office computer at the Catholic Language Institute, and a used desktop unit that Ernest was able to procure for me to use at home. With these, my job was to plug in a computer program that I had brought with me into the country—a basic dictionary-maker called Shoebox, which had been used by linguists and ethnographers all over the world. Then I had to figure out how to make the program run, learning Unicode computing along the way so I could manage the input of Arabic characters. Beyond the computer tasks, I was to compile wordlists from a broad circle of Sudanese contacts and expatriate workers, and then input the data, careful keystroke by careful keystroke, into the growing dictionary database.

The main characters in this work, beyond my own team, included two British Bible translators, who had spent many years in the southern parts of the country, and two workers at the Catholic Language Institute—Father Pierre, a stooped, graying old priest who exuded a sense of patient pleasure everywhere he went, and Lucia, a Dutch woman who taught Arabic classes to other expats. Most of my work revolved around the Catholic Language Institute of Khartoum, a maroon building just a stone’s throw from the Saudi embassy in Amarat, across the main road from my home area of Diems. I got used to walking back and forth between the two suburbs, making my commute by foot every day (about half an hour’s walk). It involved crossing the wildly-weaving traffic of the main thoroughfare, which was sometimes a hair-raising experience (I only almost died once), but on the whole it was a pleasant stroll. Dressed in the normal clothes of daily life—sandals, slacks, and a button-up shirt with the cuffs rolled back—I walked back and forth across the sandy streets, stopping every now and then to practice my greetings with the fuul merchants along the way.

It was there at the institute—affectionately called CLIK—that our meeting to launch the dictionary project took place. Ernest and Aaron were there, as were the two British missionaries, along with Father Pierre and Lucia. We talked a bit about word lists (they had some 2000 pieces of linguistics data already assembled for me to input), about whether to use American or British English in parallel with Sudanese Arabic, and about who else I should contact for more information. And as I was talking in that meeting, I happened to mention the name of the linguistics organization, unaware that saying it out loud would be a problem. But I felt chastened when Father Pierre popped up, rushed over, and locked the doors.

In one sense, the work I was going to do looked kind of boring—manually inputting thousands of items of linguistic data into a computer program. There certainly wasn’t anything illegal in producing this dictionary, which would likely end up being as much use to the Sudanese government as to missionaries. But in another sense, it suddenly took on shades of excitement and intrigue. I was going to spend the next few months conducting meetings with workers whose affiliations were closely-guarded, and whose patient, stalwart work for the good of Sudan was something that had to be done in the shadows. I might be walking in the bright sunlight from Diems to Amarat every day, but the work that I did was something that could not yet be spoken in the open air.

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