To want, to need and to look for

In the language of Shangana, the dialect spoken in the region of the Limpopo National Park, the word used to express 'to want’, ‘to need’ and ‘to look for’ is one and the same.  I am not a linguist, but I found that this manner of speaking reflected the day-to-day ways of life and social interaction. When one is less likely to distinguish between one’s own, or another person’s want and need, acts of solidarity are understood in a different light.  

In the process of looking for a research assistant to help me in the field, I brought one young woman to the small village where I was staying who did something that helped me to understand this culturally embedded solidarity. She was clearly better off than any of the families in my research site, and she adopted a somewhat condescending attitude towards the rural ways of the people there.  Feeling responsible for her presence in the village, and embarrassed at the way she was treating them, our collaboration was short lived.  

On our last planned day in the village, however, she asked one of the families to give her a chicken— not to buy it, for them them to give it to her as a gift.  When she was gone I approached the family to ask to repay for the chicken and she looked at me and said with certainty, “if she asked for it, it means that she must need it". 

Understanding this subtlety of language and culture was key for me to understand people's relationships with the natural resources on which they depend to live, especially land, as well as their relationships amongst each other.    


Jessica Milgroom