One of the cooler aspects of PC service is learning local languages most Americans have never even heard of (think of all the cool bar stories I can tell when I’m home!). PC Senegal especially has many languages. The country is extremely linguistically and ethnically diverse—the largest group (Wolof) doesn’t even form a majority of citizens (about 40%). My site’s a Fulakunda site, though it’s 1km from a Pula Futa village (another Pulaar dialect), and my sitemate is 4km away in a Mandinka village (a Mande language, like Bambara and Malinke).
In many cases, you’re the only Toubab they’ve met who’d rather speak to them in their native tongue than in French (or whatever the host country’s lingua franca is). Though having had to learn Bambara, Malinke, and Fulakunda in less than a 12-month span has had more than its fair share of frustrations, there’s definitely an unparalleled sense of street cred you feel whenever the locals recognize you as being able to speak their language. Granted, this acknowledgement comes much more easily and frequently from strangers than from villagers at your site. It’s easy to make yourself sound more comfortable and capable of the language than you really are when you’re quickly throwing out greetings and casually shooting the breeze in the same 10-minute conversations with people you’ve just met—I practically have those memorized at this point (who you are, what kind of work you do, where your site is, and how hot it is today). Funny, if you just spit out greetings at rapid-fire pace, they think you’re fluent—until you start trying to have actual conversations with them (often project-related), and they realize how much of a stuttering, hesitating speaker you are.
After busting my hump for the past 3+ months at site to learn Pulaar, I’m starting to feel some progress. I’ve had 2 personal victory moments, both of which happened in Kolda. The first was at a hotel, where I was using their wifi while watching an Olympic soccer game. Two Senegalese men were standing behind me, discussing what had just happened in the game. One of them got the player’s name wrong, so I turned and corrected him. That man just looks at the other and says, “How does the Toubab know Pulaar?” The second guy’s immediate response was, “She must be a PCV.” Points for PC.
The second awesome moment happened the next day, when I was getting a car back to site. Unfortunately, the little victory wasn’t under the best of circumstances: some 18-year-old kid who helps load the buses tried to prevent me from sitting in the empty front seat because I’m a woman. Seething, I lashed out at him, saying he was disrespectful, stupid, and ended with pushing him out of the way while telling him in no ambiguous terms what he should go do (much thanks to an older PCV who’d, ironically, just told me how to say that in Fulakunda earlier that day). The few nearby people who’d heard our interaction jumped to my defense and later told me they were very impressed with my Pulaar. Points for me.
(*For the record, I very rarely experience gender discrimination in Senegal, incessant marriage proposals aside. And the whole not letting a woman sit in the front seat thing does not actually exist; this must have just been a little punk who was looking to upset me.)
The language barrier has made communication at site very interesting and highly variable; though the people I speak with most generally understand me the best, and I sometimes use them as intermediaries when I’m trying to explain something important, just to be sure it gets conveyed accurately. My older host brother, who works as a Tostan teacher in a different town most of the year and speaks French, is one of those who understands my Pulaar best, and his greater-than-village-average education means he’s a bit more worldly and knowledgeable about current events than most others in Thiewal Lao; he’s become one of my favorite people to hang out with at site. However, I had an interesting conversation with him and my grandmother (also one of my favorites) earlier this week that reminded me that, despite his awareness of current events (we talk about the ongoing Mali situation a lot) and the fact he has an email address (like Mali, many villagers have no idea what the Internet is, much less email), he’s still a rural West African villager (and the education here is sadly lacking in quality history and geography lessons—in addition to many other things, namely logic, reasoning, deduction, etc. But more on that another day…). Per usual, the conversation started with them asking questions about life in the US, this time about farms and farming. I showed them my passport page with the image of the US farmer circa 1900. Because this conversation quickly became the quintessential village culture exchange, I wrote it down as literally as possible to demonstrate what I hear on a daily basis:
- Me: Yes, over 100 years ago, we farmed like you, but since then we’ve learned new techniques to grow lots of food and keep our soil healthy. And we have very big farms with big machines, but most Americans don’t farm.
- Brother: So, one person has 4 hectares of a farm, and they have a lot of money?
- M: No, many farms are much bigger, and farmers pay people to help. They farm lots of food to sell.
- *They nod, unconvinced. He starts flipping through the passport, looking at other images.
- B: Oh, this is a big animal. What’s it called?
- M: I don’t know its name in French, and it’s not in Senegal so there’s no Pulaar name. In English, it’s called ‘buffalo.’
- Grandma: Are there a lot in the US? Do you eat them?
- M: Not too many now. I’ve never eaten one. People used to kill them and eat them because they have a lot of meat, but American people don’t do that a lot now.
- B: Oh, so now they’re not in American towns? They’re bush animals?
- M: Sure.
- *They continue to flip through my passport and comment on every animal and monument picture, until the last page.
- B: What’s that thing?
- M: The moon. And that’s the earth. Americans have been to the moon.
- B: (giving me a face as if I were from the moon) They’ve gone to the moon?! Why? How long did their airplane take? A month?
- M: It’s not an airplane; it’s similar, but much faster, and it can fly much higher. It took them a few days. They stayed on the moon for a few days to take some pictures and take some rocks for research. Then they came home.
- G: Toubabs have been to the moon? Why do they have so many machines? There’s nothing in Senegal….
- M: Yes, American people really like science and technology. We like making things.
- B: Yeah, you like science a LOT. When did this happen—going to the moon?
- M: The first time? 1969.
- B: The second time?
- M: Soon after the first, but I don’t know the year, really.
- B: Did they go in 1993?
- M: I don’t know.
- *awkward silence, with them just looking at each other
- G: So does your dad go out and kill buffalo?
The late and great Neil Armstrong, I salute you.