Icebreakers: Lost in Translation

isiZulu word of the post: iswidi
isiNgisi: sweet (what South Africans call candy)
Meaning: The thing that can make or break my icebreakers in the Rainbow Nation

A common activity in American leadership workshops and diversity talks is to do something called an icebreaker which comes from American slang “to break the ice”. Icebreakers gets strangers to get to know each other through outlandish behavior or deep questions. I have a love/hate relationship with icebreakers. I love meaningful icebreakers that use storytelling and questions to reinforce the importance of listening. However I am not a fan of the goofy icebreakers that involve yelling.

Caregiver camp was a weekend full of icebreakers and I enjoyed watching how the AmaZulu women (and one man) reacted to the icebreakers. My director (who is American but after 10 years in South Africa she is capable of conversational isiZulu…she refuses to say she is fluent) was translating my roommate’s instructions and sometimes it took a while for the caregivers to understand the directions. Our name game and first activity was a bust. They also did not like the icebreakers that involved yelling!

On the schedule, I was co-facilitating one of my favorite and versatile icebreakers called color Jacuzzi. The activity involves a set of colored candies (in South Africa Smarties work well which are “naturally” colored M&Ms and more delicious than their chalky American counterpart) and each color is assigned a question. The questions can be whatever the facilitator deems appropriate. Our questions developed by my roommate (who has a master’s in Child Development and is a former Child Life Specialist) involved feelings like share a time when you were very happy, sad, or embarrassed. For example, this time I got yellow which was sharing a time that I was very happy and talked about swearing in as a PCV! People pick their candy and before eating their sweet, they are supposed to answer the question.

Unfortunately our transportation to the camp was two hours late and the schedule had to be cut back. We had a chance to do the activity with my organization’s home based carers during a staff meeting the following Monday. Before we started the activity we distributed three candies, discussed the questions, gave participants a minute to pick one color/story to share and eat the two that they choose not to use. We almost made it around the circle without an accident, and then one of our carers ate all of their Smarties and forgot their colors before their turn! Thankfully we had extra candies, which also worked well as motivators for the discussion afterwards. I loved hearing what the advice our staff had for other carers and tips for a healthy lifestyle!

I also learned that the subjunctive tense is also hard to place into isiZulu. I was trying to lead the activity’s debrief with my director translating and said something along the lines, “If your clients were well you would not be their carer”. Eish, I wish y’all saw how wide her eyes got when that came out of my mouth! I made sure to give her a break (and be more cautious not to use subjunctive language or as I call it, passive aggressive English)!


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