Editor: Jessica Milsom

Coming Full Circle SPEAK

It was a cold and dark morning and I remember my mother carrying my two-year-old brother as we exited the airplane that landed us at the airport in Cape Town, South Africa. I was about three and a half years-old and was wearing this oversized heavy padded jacket that I believe could easily be used in an advertisement for Antarctic winter gear to get you through peak winter seasons in countries like Canada and Alaska. 

The funny thing about this day is the fact that it was really freezing and I was holding this 330ml glass bottle of regular Coca Cola, which I believe at the time had already gone flat, but because of the love I had for Coca Cola at the time I just couldn’t let it go, I was persistent to finish it and I maybe I did, I can’t quite remember. This was roughly around 1998. My father, who was in the military during the civil war that was taking place at the time, left Angola for South Africa before us in order to stabilize himself and lead the path for the rest of the family. Within a matter of months, he did and was the one who picked us at the airport on this particular day.

My father always tells me that the first few days of meeting and living with him I was shy and would always run away from him as I did not know who he was. It’s like a scene from those films where the character’s dad has been absent for the early stages of a child’s life because of war and when their dad finally comes home… you’re not quite familiar with who he is – even if your mother would say “go over there, that’s your dad, go there”. I suppose that is what war does. Not only does it kill but it also destroys families and leaves a lot of families displaced. And children are the ones that are the biggest casualties of this. 

Of course, time passed by and I accepted him as my dad (he is my father after all) and we created so many memories together until the day he took me to the airport along with my two younger brothers and mother as I was leaving for Portugal, I guess that is coming to a full circle.

Hallo Suid Afrika

If we should rewind a little back before I left for Portugal, back to the time when I was in Primary school, I would most certainly say those were the best days of my life. I think most of us would agree I suppose because we didn’t have any responsibilities and lived carefreely.  But despite this, I obviously had my challenges and one of those was English. Coming from Angola we only spoke Portuguese at home and the same continued when I began going to crèche and school.

We moved around a lot, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and this obviously exposed me to so many cultural experiences. Just to understand a bit about South Africa, it is a country that just came out from the worst form of racial segregation that ever existed to mankind. Formerly known as Apartheid, which ended in 1994 after the release of Nelson Mandela, which he subsequently took up the reign as president of South Africa. Before this (1994), different races and cultures were not permitted to engage with each other, a system that basically tried to divide every race, tribe and culture from each other.  The first language I began learning was the Xhosa language given that we first stayed in a Xhosa community so everything was in Xhosa so I picked it up quite easily.

We then moved to a Coloured (mixed raced) community in Cape Town – in South Africa, this isn’t just a race but also a culture. This is where I began picking up English and Afrikaans, which is a spin-off dialect of Dutch. But despite living in the community and these were the languages spoken, I found it difficult still because of the language barrier (I still always spoke Portuguese at home). 

We kept only speaking Portuguese at home until one day my parents, how I liked to see “passed the bill”, saying that no more Portuguese was to be allowed to be spoken at home and only English was. I like to see the passing of that bill bittersweet because we (my brother and I) would only respond in English when our parents spoke to us in Portuguese. This really did help us get comfortable with the English language, and paid off very well in the end. This also exposed me to letting go of the Xhosa language as the Afrikaans language took its place and I began learning it in school and being familiar with it in everyday surroundings. I soon began to get fluent in the language and even sounded like a native in a matter of months.

Fast forward to a couple of years in high school, after a year of failing accounting terribly and really not understanding the crux of it, I finally had a classmate who explained to me in such a way that it made sense. It was like a light bulb moment everything made sense and I became incredibly good at it. In fact, I excelled at it and soon I began tutoring my friends for final exams. 

Then in university, I began doing the same on certain occasions for some of my church colleagues when they needed some explanations and tutoring. During all these times I would find great joy in knowing the people I tutored understood things and would pass their tests which was the best part. I guess this was also one of the defining moments – knowing I actually enjoyed teaching and I suppose have the skills to teach people because I enjoyed the positive impact that I had on people.

Olá Portugal

Fast forward to a couple of years later when I arrived in Portugal in 2020 after I stayed in Germany for about 5 months, I managed to get an opportunity to teach English not only to the Portuguese community of Lisbon but also to (the) CPR community in Bobadela, Lisbon which is the organisation that supports and welcomes refugees here in Portugal. I was very optimistic and eager to begin but a week before I was set to begin, the country was hit with the Covid -19 pandemic and was subsequently called off.  Time passed by and I made a good life friend and without really telling her about my background of what I did in South Africa she mentioned something to me that still sticks with me today and that was the fact she suggested that I should teach English.

Time passed by and I began working as a restaurant attendant in Porto Covo and spoke mostly Portuguese (almost every day) to clients but when a tourist would walk into the restaurant I got overly excited to speak English with them because I missed it and the love I had for the language and the simplicity to express in the language. And soon I left that job and began another job in Sines around the Alentejo region and on one particular day in late November I was scrolling through on my Instagram and I saw that SPEAK were looking for buddies. Initially, I thought about what my good friend had said, the idea of doing it, the fact I was about to do something like it earlier the same year (last year) and I also was really craving to have a positive impact on people’s lives again. Within a minute or so I signed up and got a call from Sofia a day later on a Sunday afternoon and so my SPEAK journey began.

My SPEAK Journey

To be completely honest, I was very nervous for my first SPEAK session as I never really gave sessions before, like I tutored in my university years but that was ages ago. What made the SPEAK experience very unique is the approach that it takes by allowing participants to speak even if they are not truly fluent or still on a really basic level – therefore more emphasis is placed on the participants to speak than simple boring grammar even though it is important.

With SPEAK, notes, materials and the support of other and former buddies make it really easy to begin this adventure and also the workshop with Ricardo really prepares you for your first session. Yes, one does become nervous and anxious in terms of how to lead the group and especially on an online platform. This can make it, even more, trickier because you might encounter problems (maybe with your internet service provider or Skype or even other things that are not in your control). But everything really did go smoothly after my first session and after getting to know my participants, understanding the level of English that they were on, how to adapt my sessions according to their learning experience which assisted a great amount in the session preparation.

My overall experience with SPEAK and giving sessions brought a great deal of satisfaction to be completely honest, despite the last stretch being a little bit challenging because of me taking on a new job and managing my time around that. Nonetheless, the experience was really rewarding because I felt that I was making an impact in the lives of others even if it was merely teaching a language. But I also learnt a great deal about the participants and their aspirations, culture, the fact they would engage in the sessions, have their moments of doubt, moments of realization and understanding made it really all rewarding. And knowing that everybody including myself at the end of the session was learning something new. 

Therefore I would like to thank SPEAK and also Sofia for checking up on me and seeing if everything was going okay. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share not only my language but also my culture and the chance to meet new people. And I do intend on keeping in touch with the participants and hopefully do intend on giving sessions again in the near future. 

-Sincerely, Afonso Celestino

Don't stop here! If you are interested in learning a new language, join the journey at SPEAK! or become a buddy today and share your language with others and be part of something big! If you want to learn more about the members of our community check out Fernando's story here!

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