Language Adventures

Among the frustrations and annoyances that being sick supplies, it has also offered me the time to peruse some reading that I haven’t touched in a while.  For example, the little Senegal textbook that my aunt purchased for me as a gift before coming here.  It’s a series called Culture and Customs of Africa, my book aptly being titled Culture and Customs of Senegal by Eric S. Ross.

I have to admit that before I arrived in country, the little Senegal textbook read as thrilling as your college biology book did. Yes I was thrilled to be going to Senegal, but I had so much to wrap up before leaving, and because most of it was foreign and unpronounceable to the point that my already overwhelmed brain glazed over. I knew I’d have two years to figure it out. So, I breezed over most of the sections, noting things that struck me as amusing (such as donkey and zebra hybrids, which I dubbed Zonkeys) or curious (naming the different dialects and deciding on which one I would want to speak based on whether or not I could even pronounce the name.  I think at the time I’d decided on Sereer).

These days though, as a twenty-one month, cultured and wise volunteer (bah!) the book made for a much more interesting read as I can now relate and identify with most of the discussion points. In particular, all the sections on Mandinkas! (Though not to get too excited because there in fact were not that many. Most underrated ethnic group ever.)  Either way, realizing that twenty-one months into my service I still haven’t talked about a lot of the basics surrounding life here in this blog, I’ve decided to share some of the book’s more interesting thoughts on my people, and more specifically, the Mandinkas in Senegal.

(The following bit I learned from my Peace Corps language teacher, Aziz Abdou Diatta.) Mandinkas are part of the Mande kingdom, which originated in Mali and was part of the Malian empire. Mandinka the language, originated in the 14th or  15th century and is a spoken language, being written in the past few decades for learning purposes only (usually foreigners learning the language aka there’s not a lot of consistency in the way the language is written aka I think the way my brother and I write Mandinka is the best so take THAT Gambian workbooks).  There are eight or nine languages that grew out of Mandinka, all which fall under the Mande family as well, including but not limited to: Mandinka, Jahanxke, Bombera, Sonike, Malinke, Suusu, Dioula, Soso and so on.  Interesting note about the languages in the Mande family: it is said that when you go down the list of languages, you should be able to communicate and understand people who speak the language on either side of the one you speak. Two languages away?  You’ll get no further than basic conversation along with a bout of charades.  Indeed it is true, as I’ve met people speaking each of these Mande languages during my time here, and while we could hold basic conversations we found that fundamental, simple words were different.  Like, for example, the word for “big.”  Aziz claimed that since all of the languages are from Mandinka, he can understand them all, which may or may not be true, but there you go.

Back to history class.  The Malian empire was a huge regulating force in West Africa way back when, and in fact stomped their way through the very lands in Senegal from where I type to you from this moment.  Here’s what my little history book says:

Mali was an ancient Mandinka kingdom centered in the upper Niger River basin on the border of present-day Mali and Guinea.  As in the case of Jolof, a legendary hero named Sunjata (Soundiata) Keita is credited in the orature for galvanizing his people and launching them on the path of empire building. By 1240 Mali had annexed the remnants of Ghana to the north and had initiated westward expansion into Senegambia.  The Gambia and Casamance river basins were conquered by General Tirimaxan (Tirimakhan) Traroe, whose heroic exploits are lauded in the orature.  Mandinka farmers and traders settled in these areas in his wake.  These western provinces were fully integrated into the Malian empire, and the Mandinka language and political culture survived long after the fall of the empire.   (Pg 16, Ross, 2008)

Cool, huh?  Now it is all clear: the reason that my village is a lonely village of Mandinkas in a sea of Pulaars is because we were one of the guys who were like, “eh, this works, no big, we’ll park here,” and so decided not to return back home to Mali after pushing the Pulaars around.  A good fact to know  when people yell at me for not speaking Pulaar in Kolda.  Now I can definitively return with, “Step off! My people used to regulate your asses.  I’ll speaka tha Mandinka until your head spins.  Now sell me some bananas.”

That’s all for this class, extra credit to whomever gives me PB M&Ms by the next one.


Journal Entry: Adventures in (Mis)Translation

They’re getting better and better. My language flubs, that is. (So, better in terms of amusement I guess.) It’s almost counterintuitive, but as my vocabulary grows, instead of feeding fluency, my newfound lingo service as a buffet for my language brain farts.

The interesting thing bout the brain farts is that I know they’re wrong; before the train wreck of words come flying out of my mouth, I know I’m not saying a) anything correctly, or b) what I want to say. All this and still, I cannot stop the words from coming out in all of their idiotic glory.

Scene: Restaurant, Thiés. Typical service (read: completely absent waitress, food takes three hours, etc.) Waitress resurfaces to bring bottle of wine ordered 45 minutes ago. Our breadbasket – empty. My stomach – clawing at my insides I’m so hungry. Waitress, pours glasses 1… 2… 3…, turns to leave.

No, wait! “Attend!”

Oh crap, I spoke. Quick, what is it that I want? Bread. “Pain.” Everyone’s looking at me. Damn it French French French… how the hell do you say “more?” Pressure…

“Beaucoup de pain s’il vous plait?”

Completely wrong. Brain fart with a two-table audience.

Scene: Tailor’s shop, Thiés. Sitting in the tailor’s, I see a shirt I really like. Thought: I want to get this copied, it’s beautiful. Thought goes directly to vocalization: hold it up, and say with all the excitement of a four year old finding a new toy, “Je suis copier!” Problem with thought-vocalization process, no filter. No Amanda, you are not a copy, but yes, the tailor can make you a copy of this shirt if that’s in fact what you want, you dufus.

In America, not having a filter got me in trouble for blurting out thoughts that were not always the most tactful. Here, my lack of filter feeds the nervous pressure I get when it comes to speaking another language and ups the embarrassment potential of what could come out of my mouth at least 110-fold.

Scene: Pompidou, Dakar. Surrounded by twelve dudes, rambling in Wolof, French, “English,” Pulaar, Flemish, Portuguese, foreign, foreign foreign. I just want to buy a hat.

Yes, let’s sit then. Hey – that guy – I like his hat. “Ton chapeau – c’est va oú?”

Sure, I’m sure that meant something along the lines of what I wanted to say. [Man puts his hat on my head. Says he’ll go find another one if I wait here.] Wow, I really do like this hat. It’s just too small. Wait – it’s too small! Mr. Pulaar man, come back!! I need a bigger one. “Attend!” Uhhh…. Gotta say this in French. Hat – I like this hat. Love this hat. Just a bit bigger. Crap, he’s leaving again. Taking too long to think. “Attend!” […pause, mind wheels cranking, still blank…] Everyone’s starring at the toubab (me) again. I take off the hat and shake it at my Pulaar hustler friend: “Je t’aime plus grande!”

I know. Brain fart of spectacular proportions this time. I just told this random street vendor that spends his days hustling white people that, “I love you bigger!”

At least this one I knew was not only incorrect as it was flying out of my mouth, I also realized that it was something that I completely did not want to say to this man. Even better, the PCV buddy I’m wandering Dakar with has flawless French. At least we’re all laughing now.

I’ll take that as my exit cue. N’ice Cream anyone?

Here’s the second letter I just sent to Ms. Riha’s 2nd grade class in Brooklyn, NY, USA:

Hi guys!

How are things going back in New York?  Did you all dress up for Halloween?  Halloween is not celebrated here in Senegal.

The biggest holiday of the year is coming up in the end of November.  It’s a holiday celebrated over four days! In West Africa, people call this holiday Tabaski (pronounced tah-bass-ski), but it has many names all over the world.  The most common name is: Eid al-Adha, which is from the Arabic language.  Since the majority of the people in Senegal practice Islam, Tabaski is a Muslim holiday.  In the Islamic religion, Tabaski commemorates the willingness of Ibraham to sacrifice his son Ismael in an act of obedience to God.  Sounds pretty serious, huh!  People are already getting excited for Tabaski though.  Everyone gets new, dressy clothes, buys lots of good food, and travels all over the country to be with their families.  Kind of like American holidays, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah.


Fodé Bayo elementary school

How’s school going?  What are you all learning about right now?   School in Senegal started in the middle of October, but many kids are just beginning classes now.  The reason classes often begin so late is because their teachers are either on strike or the refuse to show up because they don’t think the Senegalese government is paying them enough money to teach.  So, when school is supposed to begin, all the kids walk to school day after day, and wait until the teachers finally show up to teach them.


Bamboo/stick classroom

In my village though, we have a different problem.   We have two great teachers ( just like Ms. Riha), but they have over 160 students to teach! One of the classrooms is even made out of bamboo and sticks.  I’m working with some local organizations to try and get more classrooms built, but the process is very slow.

Remember how I told you all in my last letter that my village speaks a language called Mandinka, and that the villages around me speak Pulaar?  Well, five different villages send their kids to the school in my village, so the kids at my school speak either Mandinka or Pulaar in their homes.  This makes school more difficult  because classes are all taught in French – the official language of Senegal.   Can you imagine trying to learn new things at school in a language you have never spoken before?  I can’t.  To get from elementary school to middle school, students must to pass a test, and a lot of kids don’t pass, so they end up dropping out.

You may wonder why everyone just doesn’t speak French from the beginning?  It surely would make things easier!  The reason most Senegalese don’t speak French as their first language is because Senegal is made up of many different ethnic groups, and each different ethnic group speaks its own special language.  For example, my village is from the Mandinka ethnic group, so we speak Mandinka.  The villages around me are from the Pulaar ethnic group, so they speak Pulaar.  The biggest ethnic group in Senegal is called Wolof (pronounced wool-off), but there are not many Wolofs in the south where I live.  No matter what ethnic group you are though, everyone who lives here is still considered Senegalese.  Confusing, huh?


Map of where different langauge are spoken around Senegal

Local languages are very important parts of the culture of Senegal – people are very proud of the different ethnicities they belong to, and take great pride in speaking their different languages.  When you travel to new places, meeting people who speak your language is a great way to make instant friends too.  The cool thing is, that even though Senegal is only the size of North Dakota, all of these ethnic groups live closely together and work together well.

I have to go and catch a bus back to my road town, so I can bike back into my village.  I’ve included some coins that we use here in Senegal for you to see.  The currency here is called the West African CFA.  Can you tell what language is written on the coins?  Remember what the official language of Senegal is? … You got it! All the writing on the coins is in French.  The 250FCFA coin is equal to .50¢, the 100 FCFA coin is about .33¢, the 50 FCFA coin is about .16¢, the 25 FCFA coin is about .8¢, and can you guess how much the 10 FCFA coin is worth? Not much!  I can buy a cold popsicle/drink for 25 FCFA, not bad! My bus ride to my road town is 800 FCFA.

I hope to hear from you all soon!  Have a great day!

Your friend,

The other day, I was pulling weeds in our farrow (rice field) with my women. “Ñaamo, Ñaamo! Ñaamo be jee… i binderoo!” they kept saying.  In English: “Amanda, Amanda! Amanda is there… pull the weeds up!”

[cue me looking around in circles trying to figure out what they were all talking about.]

Turns out, my name in Mandinka is not Ñaamo, because ñaamo is the word for “weed.”  Like the ones that grow in your garden.

My name, is Ñamoo.   Which means… well I have no idea what it means, but either way I’m not a weed.

Glad we got that cleared up.


Journal Entry

Oi! First day in village. Well, not “day” because I installed today, but I’m pooped either way.

As we drove up to my village, EVERYONE install was standing outside with drums and the little Mandinka gourd-violin things, singing and dancing and sweating like mad. Looking at them all standing there to greet me was overwhelming, I didn’t know what to do. Their faces glistened with the tears I held back as I looked at my family for the next two years. Everyone wanted to touch my hand. Everyone wanted me to dance with them. I was between completely breaking down crying and laughing my ass off the entire time.

Words cannot credit what my welcoming experience felt like.

Earlier in the day, me and the other two volunteers who are installing in Kolda as well, met with the Chief de Medecine to say hello, let him know who we are and where we will be working. For me, the meeting went something like this:

Chief: “We welcome you with open arms, tell us everything you’re planning to do for the next two years” [cold stares]

I discuss the ideas I had from my brief visit to Fode Bayo a month before: continuing the former volunteer’s work at the Casse de Sante, working with the village on would care and nutrition and being able to sustain their own food – but told them that I wanted to get to know my village a bit better before I made any solid decisions.

“Ok well you’re planning on doing too much and the wrong things at that. What Fodè Bayo needs is to wash their hands and store their food better and eat millet and clean their water better and build some better wells [this is where I stopped listening].”

I took a deep breath and explained, trying to hide my frustration, that Fodè Bayo did in fact have two wonderful wells that a NGO came and built a few years ago, that they already had the proper food storage units and were working on gardening so that they could…

[Interrupting me] “Good but all they do is sell that stuff they grow they don’t eat it that’s why they’re poor and malnurished out there! They need to eat it.”

I explained that to my knowledge, they do eat all of their food because, yes, you’re right, they are in their starving season, and are skipping meals daily in order to have enough food until the harvest.

“Do you speak French?”

Not really

[Stares at me for a moment then laughs]

“So what are you planning to do specifically for Fodè Bayo?”

Well, being that I’ve been there for two days total, the specificity of my plans haven’t really changed from what I said before…

And so on. I left the meeting so overly frustrated, with my disgust for “leaders” in failing health system flagrantly renewed, my eyes brimming with tears as I thought about all the wasted time, money and resources people like create when in power. None of the men who spoke down to me in that meeting had ever stepped a toe in Fodè Bayo. The projects they told me I needed to do were part of the projects dictated by the Senegalese government for them to do. But no, “you do this and then write us a report at the end of your two years of service so that we can know what you did. How can we know what you’re doing if you don’t tell us?”

Or, how can we take credit for you doing our work unless you tell us?

But off my soap box. My hut’s a mess but it’s ok because it’s the hot season and tonight we sleep outside.  Crumply pages, I bid you goodnight!

Suuto ye diyaah!

Ñaamo Dandio
(My new village name… my name for the next two years!)


Mandinka: Kor tanante! Tanante! Mune be diyarin? Fen JAMMA be diyarin. YOOOO!
English: Do you have peace? Peace only! What is sweet? EVERYTHING is
sweet. Yoooo!

“Yooo” is a big aspect of any West African dialect. It can mean
“yes,” “I see,” “I agree,” “wow!” and even “cool!” For me, I use it
mostly when my language skills stop and I am left clueless as to what
people are saying – luckily, a “yo!” in response when they’re done
speaking always seems to satisfy.

Tomorrow, I move into my village! Stats:
– 159 Mandinkas + me = 160 people total… will be exciting for someone who has always lived in big cities!
– My village – from now till October (harvest time) – is in their “starving season” meaning we skip breakfast now and will eat less as months go on since food has begun to run low. What do we eat now? No breakfast, lunch: millet and water porridge (fantastic when it’s 114 out at lunchtime NOT), dinner: millet and water and leaf sauce (pounded leaves and water). I miss chocolate. At least the Mandinkas are fun people who like to dance!!  fb
– Mandinka is only spoken in my village. Everyone else in Kolda (my region of Senegal) speaks Pulaar.
– That said, Mandinka is the biggest “inside joke” in Senegal; while most people don’t speak it, if you throw out a Mandinka greeting (“Kor tanante”) and someone who speaks hears you, they think it’s about the funniest thing they’ve heard all year and will proceed laugh and “yooo!” and talk to you for as long as you’ll let them.
– There are MONKEYS around my village
– My village is only accessible via bicycle or horse or horse cart (charet) or super-4-wheel-drive-off-roading-machine. The bike ride ranges from 45 minutes to well over an hour depending on the weather/obstacles in the roads.
– I’m living in a hut that has a door shorter than I am
– There is absolutely NO ice cream sold in my new region of Senegal… none… the closest ice cream is in Gambia (the country ha!) which is like 4 hours away SAD FACE!
– Red bisap juice is a red juice made from the red flowers of the Bisap tree and is my candy for the next two years. I am officially addicted and let me tell you, it’s a lovely addiction. Sold only by big ladies on the side of the road/in markets out of little coolers. 50 CFA. Perfection.
– I want a cheese burger

– We all looked very pretty for swear-in: swear-in

– A lot of people here like to ask us where Obama is and what he is doing

– I made the stereotype “I don’t speak this language” mistake the other day in the tailor’s shop: I saw a shirt I really liked, so holding it up to myself, I looked at the tailor and said “Je suis copier!” which actually means “I am a copy!” not “I want to copy.” At least everyone else can get enjoyment from my long learning curve. AND…
– As a woman, it’s almost necessary to be “married” if you want to get any work done w/out any males you work with trying to constantly see if you’re interested in marrying them while you’re trying to get work done etc etc, SO when I visited my village recently and they asked me what my husband’s name is (which caught me off guard b/c usually they just ask if you have a husband) I panicked and just said, “aaaah…. Hugh Jackman!!” So, my village now thinks my husband is Hugh Jackman. Good thing he’s SOO busy making movies, he’ll just never be able to come visit. Le sigh.
– I am so overwhelmed with the preparations and idea of moving into my hut tomorrow that I’m in a perfect zen state where nothing is actually bothering or affecting me. Hurrah!


Journal Entry

Siiman bii suuto Sene yaa be a diyaata!!! … Dinner tonight at Kellen’s house was amazing!! din

All five of us training in Mbour came over and cooked banana pancakes and scrambled eggs with a bagillion vegetables in it. Overall, it went extremely well, considering the word about the toubabs cooking dinner flew like the wind and a ton of people showed up. We put sugar and lemon juice on the pancakes for “syrup” – amazing! So good.

Of course, Chris’s dad, Lamine Drame showed up and decided to start a tam tam circle after dinner… “simian diyaata [clap clap] sii-man [clap] diyaata! [clap]. AMAZING!! If we could have a tam tam circle in celebration of everything good life would almost be too much fun. pancakes

After dinner, we trekked over to Mamadou (David’s) house for ataaya (tea) with his twenty brothers. Kellen brought his guitar, and we sang cliché American tunes and the boys sang Flight of the Conquords and I didn’t end up wandering back to my end of town until close to midnight (at which point I had to hope over my compound wall in my ankle length skirt because the compound door was locked!).

Tonight was a good night.

And tomorrow I turn 23!!

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