The Interpreter

It was a far way from the pressure of Nicole Kidman’s role as an interpreter for the UN, but for several days in May, my brain melted completely.

I was working as an interpreter for a conference with delegates from countries involved in the Nile Basin Initiative, hosted at the Ministry for Water & Irrigation in Sudan’s capital. Presentations were given in English, and two of us, wearing headphones whilst locked in a side-room, were regurgitating these words in French for the benefit of representatives from Rwanda, Burundi and other Francophone countries with a vested interest in the source of this mighty river. Two hour stints, without respite, left me exhausted.

The subject is rather pertinent at the moment, with a few articles and debates about the signing of treaties appearing in the international media. Egypt, through a mandate ratified in colonial times, yields the right to a lion’s share of the mighty river’s waters. It has threatened military action against any up-stream country that threatens its share of the waters. Sudan stands side-by-side with its neighbour — between the two countries they claim 87% — whilst the remaining countries are fighting for their right to exploit the Nile’s waters for irrigation and hydro-electric projects.

The conference also gave an interesting mind-set into the culture and workings of these African decision makers. Comments were never short, with lengthy introductions praising colleagues’ standing, before belittling their work or understanding of a problem. In workshops, less time was spent criticising a presentation than the presenter’s understanding of the question. Coffee and tea-breaks were accorded the utmost importance.