Can We Talk Later? I’m ‘in the field?’

Since coming to Nepal, I’ve realised that Nepali is not the only language that I will need to learn in order to live and work here. I also have to familiarise myself with the language of acronyms and buzz-words spoken in INGOs, multilateral agencies and diplomatic missions. After a few weeks of getting my BOGs’s and my TOR’s mixed up I feel like I’m now getting the hang of the lingo.

When I first started to use accronyms, NGO-speak and political jargon in my initial weeks here I felt a warm, fuzzy glow of professionalism and legitimacy. A protective coating of words, almost. For example, when I spoke to my family in London on the phone after being out of touch for a while I told them (on reflection, rather smugly) that I had been ‘in the field’, which would implicitly excuse my silence. The truth, that I had been in the Tarai, where there are plenty of call shops and even internet cafes, and that my only contact with a ‘field’ of any description was when our jeep broke down by the side of one, did not sound quite so glamorous – or indeed, as forgivable. And when I did speak to my family, I did not neglect to bombard them with words like ‘interlocutor’ and ‘implement’ (why do we love this verb so much?). My gran was initially confused, but ulimately was just relieved to hear that I was happy and well in my new home- and that I sounded like I’d actually got a real job.

But now the thrill of this new language is starting to wear off and I start to question what I actually mean when I speak it.

I was particularly struck by something that David Reiffer wrote in his critique of humanitarianism, A Bed for the Night, about this phrase ‘in the field’, in the same vane as the questions that have been arrising in my own mind over the past week on the issue of language.

‘What we have been pleased to call ‘the field’ – that strangely distancing, Boy-Scoutish term much beloved of journalists and aid workers, for what in reality are other people’s countries, tragedies, destinies’

This goes a long way to explaining why, when my mother (a manager at a British housing and homelessness NGO) does not refer to her trips to projects in such unexotic locations as Croydon and Hastings as ‘going to the field’. The ‘them and us’ separation can never be so clean when you work in your native country. And raises some deeper questions about how ‘internationals’ use language to describe their work both to their own community and to outsiders while working in the developing world.

Anyhow, I must be off now. I’m going to implement a kitchen in our Base Area this week and need look for utensils in the bazaar.

This post previously appeared Mesocosm


3 Responses to “Can We Talk Later? I’m ‘in the field?’”

  1. this reminds me of meeting a now very good friend a few years ago. he was an engineer at the us patent office. and had clearly surrounded himself with other engineers and civil servants in that deparment:

    my housemate and i were both INGOers at the time. he always complained he couldn’t figure out what we were talking about…between complaining about SAPs, MDGs, LDCs and so on…then one day he surprised us and said, “i’ve never been friends with NGPs before”. so we asked him what NGPs were…apparently he’d assumed that those who worked for NGOs were NGPs…meaning non-government persons ; )

  2. haha great story! And there was i thinking that engineers were the ones that talk in an unintelligable language.

  3. Hahahahaha this is soo funny LOL

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