By Muiz Ogunwomoju Moab
When I moved to Germany in 2014 for my master’s program, almost everyone I encountered spoke English. The master’s program was taught in English, so at first, there was no need to learn German. Not learning the language early was one of the mistakes I made. I was mentally exhausted to learn any new language. All I wanted was just to make a good living for myself after living in Ukraine for six years without earning a dime. Speaking to locals in their language gives you an edge; it is the window through which one could penetrate the soul of a people.
You know the way your phone automatically connects to your WiFi when you reach home, that’s how speaking to locals in their language feels like. It connects you to them; you’re home, connected. It gives you confidence and creates a soft spot in their hearts. And, sincerely, it works everywhere. I have known this during my days in Ukraine but I didn’t take the lesson with me to Germany. A big mistake.
In 2015, when summer was approaching and I had spent more than half of the 8 thousand euros I had in my blocked account, I had to look for a solution. Job. The antidote to being broke. I began searching for temporary jobs, any kind of jobs that will fetch me money. I applied for as many as possible. All in futility. No response. And when they finally responded and called me for introduction meetings, they asked me if I speak German. When I said no, that’s the end. One day, I accepted one introduction meeting with one logistics firm in Leipzig. I had said yes via email. On getting there, after the short introduction about the firm, the woman in charge called me in. I took a seat, anticipating signing a temporary work contract. Instead, the woman gave me a paper and asked me to read what was written on it. I read it. She then pointed to one word in one of the paragraphs and asked me what it means. My heart skipped. Zweifel! That was the word. How could I know it? What does it mean? She asked. I didn’t keep quiet. It’s a trick I have learned over the years. Better say something than nothing. I said something. Can’t remember. But it was far from what the word meant. She pointed to another word: Flughafen. Airport, I told her the meaning. Correct! She said. She then pointed to another word: Verpackung. I mumbled something but of course nonsense as usual. She shook her head, gave me her contact card and told me to get in touch whenever my German has improved. I left. But those two words got stuck in my head. I immediately checked the meaning on Google and those words never left me since then. Doubt. Package.
Some weeks later, I finally got a summer holiday job with the second biggest automobile firm in the world. VW. The factory is located in Wolfsburg. But I was afraid. I didn’t want what happened the last time to occur again. But I can’t learn German overnight. It will, of course, take some time. I needed money, so I went to the introduction and contract signing meeting.
In Wolfsburg, inside the VW’s factory, many students had come from different cities for the summer holiday job. The pay was good. 16€ per hour. No non-skilled job will pay that high. Especially for students. But there was a problem. It seemed I was the only one who couldn’t speak German and that even made me more tense and afraid. As they called my name to come forward and sign the contract, I was quivering inside but didn’t show it. The woman who called me asked me to fill in how many days I had worked before that time. I didn’t understand what she said. I could have just said zero if I understood what she had said. I feigned a thinking posture, touching my head with my index finger. And then said something. When she realized that I didn’t understand what she had asked me, she confronted me. You don’t understand, she said. I understand, I responded, regurgitating the German words I had memorized some days before. She asked me again. This time, by luck, I understood faintly. I counted my fingers and showed her. Five, I said. She didn’t query further and allowed me to sign the contract. I was relieved.
Every summer VW and Daimler (Mercedes) hire students to fill the space of their full-time assembly workers who would later go on summer holidays. Doing that will help them meet their daily production targets.
Two weeks later, I resumed work. We had already been divided into shifts and departments on the day we signed our work contract. So on the first day, there was a short PowerPoint presentation and the presenter was speaking German and asking questions. I understood zilch. My heart was racing and praying that the man doesn’t point to me and ask me a question. When he pointed to a guy sitting next to me, my heart skipped. I almost shit myself. I felt like using ofe, the Yoruba teleport technology that was never realized but only ideated in words. I felt like disappearing but couldn’t.
When the man was done with his presentation, he then directed us to another man who would give us basic training on how to handle different types of automatic screwdriver machines and how to screw without injuring ourselves. There’s a technique to it. There’s a technique for everything on automobile assembly lines. As the man was explaining, he called me to practice what he had just explained. He was explaining but I didn’t understand whatever he was saying. Then he asked me if I understood. No, I confessed. What language do you understand? He asked. English and Russian, I said confidently. Russian? He queried, surprised that I speak Russian. He continued the training. And when we were done, he divided us into groups. He took each group to their department, leaving me. He then came back and told me he would look for the department where there are Russian speakers. He took me to the door assembly department. As we got there, he greeted everyone. He took me to the shift leader and told him that I only speak Russian. Ты говоришь по русский? Do you speak Russian? The shift leader asked. Hа! Yes! I responded. His eyes beamed with delight. A connection was birthed. I was elated, relieved. He took me to the team and told them I speak Russian. They’re surprised and happy. The shift leader assigned Kcenia, a Russo-German girl, to train me. Kcenia trained me and I understood everything. The job was hard at first, working in three different shifts: morning afternoon, and night shifts. But it later became a routine. The pay was good. You get 25% more for night shifts. Before I knew it, the news that one black man speaks Russian had spread to other departments. So other Russian speaking workers would come to our department to greet me and talk. I felt at home. I worked at VW in Wolfsburg for four months without speaking a German word. If there was any announcement or any information, Kcenia would translate it for me. The factory is a magical place. I was curious about many things. The planning. The machinery. The structure. The thinking that went into the creation of every department. The techniques. And so on.
It was at VW that I realized that there are many Russo-Germans. Their history is intertwined. Unknown to many people, Germany and Russia shared a long twisted history through marriages and other human and economic relations. Now that I speak both languages, even though my German is dominant because of its frequent use, I always find myself in situations where Russian always comes through for me. It saved me in 2015, and it has saved me in other situations that I will share someday.