This month, in my continued quest to learn Wolof through immersion, I’m living in a different town, one that is known for its “pure” Wolof language and its pronounced Wolof culture. Up until now, I’ve lived in the capital city where a multitude of cultures and languages create a melting pot, like many countries’ capital city. The Wolof spoken there is much more blended with French (this country’s “official language”). And the people who speak Wolof in the capital city are not all ethnically Wolof.

the new town I'm living in

the new town I’m living in

But here in pure Wolof country, I’m immersed in both Wolof language and Wolof culture. And I’m discovering that culture can sometimes help, other times hinder, language learning.

my room at kër Ndiaye

my room at kër Ndiaye

I’m living with a wonderful host family. I’m beyond adequately taken care of here by the Ndiaye household. Ndey Ndiaye makes the neighborhood children giggle by telling them I’m her daughter. Aida makes nothing of introducing me to her friends as her big sister. And, following suit, I’ve dubbed Awa (whose twin sister is living elsewhere with another sister and brother-in-law) my twin sister since my own twin isn’t around either. Life with the Ndiayes is simple, slow, sometimes tight financially but always full of laughter. And they speak with me only in Wolof. Many of the family members don’t speak French at all. Some speak French fluently, but they don’t speak it at all with me because here in their home, French is simply not spoken. It’s the language in which school is taught, but it’s not their mother-tongue. This is good news for me in Wolof learning – this is immersion.

looking out onto my new home's courtyard at evening prayer time; my host father Pappe Ndiaye is praying to the left

looking out onto my new home’s courtyard at evening prayer time; my host father Pappe Ndiaye is praying to the left

Wolof culture sometimes brings with it indirect communication. Needs and desires are expressed through allusions, hints, casual comments. This can make practicing my Wolof while living with a Wolof family a bit tricky. I look for any opportunity to make conversation because that’s how I practice and progress. I already knew that in this culture, asking a lot of questions is considered nosy and rude. So I limit my questions, trying to follow the pattern of the topics of conversation they bring up. And of course I’m already limited in vocabulary and subjects to talk about. But even so, I look for chances to ask what things are called, to ask about the people and things I see every day, and to ask how things are done.

However, in this culture my innocent “making of conversation” can easily be interpreted as expression of a need. So my asking about the neighbor who makes and sells akara and ñebe sandwiches communicated to Ndey Ndiaye that the bread and butter she was providing me for breakfast was not sufficient. At least that’s the only way I can explain the akara that suddenly starting appearing in my bread. I’m fed so well here; the last thing I want to communicate is that it’s not enough! So I’ve stopped asking about food; unless I want to explode from eating so much, I’ll just have to find other ways to practice certain things.

There are other situations where I try to practice the phrases I know, only to find out later that in Wolof culture, the words I used are highly offensive. I attended an ngente my first week here. I had attended these Muslim name-giving ceremonies before. But at this particular ngente, I was actually taken into the bedroom of the mother, where she and her closest friends were sitting with the baby. I was to greet her and congratulate her. I said the phrase that one says at an ngente (Nokk sa bakkan, something about the mother’s nose; I have no idea what it actually means). What else to say as I stood there looking at the baby? Well in my home culture what else does one say but that the baby is beautiful? And I know how to say that in Wolof. So that’s what I said, thinking it was the most honoring thing I could say in my limited Wolof to the mother who had just given birth.

However, I found out later that it can be extremely offensive to say “Oh your baby is beautiful!” at an ngente. In Wolof culture many taboos surround drawing attention to beauty and blessings. If certain things are uttered, the evil spirits will be attracted and could wreak havoc. Therefore, what I should have said was “Oh your baby is ugly!” So, depending on the situation there are certain phrases that I can’t use even if I know them and would use them in my home culture. And I have to hope that my obvious ignorance and my smiling face communicate more than my misplaced, offensive Wolof words.

Thankfully, though, there are certain aspects of Wolof culture which actually help language learning. There’s the habit of commenting on what a person is in the midst of doing when one exchanges greetings. What a helpful way of learning new vocabulary! I’m sitting, folding my clothes; someone comes in and, after greeting me, says, “Yaa ngiy lem.” (“You’re folding.”) “Waaw,” I respond, and I make a mental note of the Wolof for “fold.” I leave the house in the morning and the man outside in the road greets me; then he says, “Yaa ngiy xëy.” “Waaw, maa ngiy xëy,” I reply, remembering the word for “to leave for work in the morning” that I’d once learned but since forgotten. I encounter a friend and greet him or her, noticing him or her doing something for which I don’t know the Wolof word. If I start the familiar sentence, “Yaa ngiy…?” I can usually get my friend to complete my sentence and teach me a new verb.

And then there’s the side of Wolof culture where communication is quite direct, that is, when one does and says something that is just not done or said. People tell me, “Kenn du ko def” (“No one does that”) or “Kenn du ko wax” (“No one says that”). It’s not rude at all in Wolof to say that to someone’s face, and actually, I quite appreciate hearing such direct instruction when other matters are so veiled and implied and indirect!

Yes, culture and language learning are messy things. The two can interact to help as well as seemingly hinder one’s progress. And one does not learn either in a vacuum. Culture and language are learned in community, in relationship with people – I have to get close enough to risk offending others, to get my toes stepped on, to communicate all kinds of things that I don’t mean. But hopefully I’m also getting close enough to develop real relationships with the people on whom I must depend.

“…(Walaayi!) Taajabóon! (Walaayi!) Taajabóon! (Walaayi!)”

These cries, accompanied by drums, rang in the Muslim New Year holiday last Monday night, November 3, and into the following day. For the first time I experienced this holiday’s traditions, some of which left me in stitches.

There were two main parts to the celebrations from what I saw. There was the millet-based meals: the famous evening meal of cere (one form of prepared millet) with chicken and a tomato-based sauce, and the mid-day meal the following day of laax, another way of preparing millet, and sweet yogurt (lighter, to aid the digestion from the previous day’s heavier meal). Preparing millet into an edible form can take several days, so the meals’ preparation can be an all-day affair (at least).

tamxarit2

And then there was the second, humorous part. People (mostly children) disguise themselves and parade through the streets, asking for money at each house – the Wolof word for this action is taajabóon, from which they derive the chant. The idea is to dress as one’s opposite — so the majority of what I saw was girls dressed as boys and boys dressed as girls. Sometimes I saw kids dress as elderly people. And sometimes I saw West Africans with powder all over their body, disguised as someone with my color skin.

tamxarit1

When I went out in the evening to visit friends, someone noticed my West African garb and called out in Wolof, “Hey toubab! You’re taajabóon-ing in your Wolof clothes!” I couldn’t help but laugh at that one. I kept laughing as I caught some hilarious footage on television later of grown-ups taking part in the festivities, and also of a comedian well-known for his ridiculous impersonations. Of course he got a lot of mileage out of taajabóon-ing as various celebrities. I haven’t laughed so hard in a while!

So, to the next year ahead – happy New Year from here in West Africa!

Photos courtesy of: kelsey-redhead.blogspot.com

There’s something exhilarating for me about sinking my teeth into a different language.

(And that’s a warning for those of you who aren’t into language learning like I am; the rest may bore you!)

my Wolof-learning station... but used only when I can't be around native-speakers, because one doesn't learn a language from books!

my Wolof-learning station with grammar books, notes, recordings… but used only when I can’t be around native-speakers, because one learns a language by being with people!

I’ve technically been learning Wolof since my arrival in country February. But it has only been in the past couple months that I’ve started spending the bulk of my time on language learning. Only recently have I started “feeling” this new language between my teeth and sinking into Wolof’s rhythms and mechanics. It’s the first non-European language I’ve learned; Wolof is a completely different animal from my mother-tongue of English, and from Spanish and French, the other languages I’ve studied with the goal of conversing. As my brain tries to wrap itself around a new grammar and my tongue tries to twist in new ways, I’m discovering layer upon layer of the wonderful world of Wolof.

First, there’s the phonetic system (the sounds that make up the language). There aren’t many difficult sounds in Wolof, so at first it seemed easy. But then I discovered that there are long and short vowels. This means that simply holding out a vowel sound a little bit longer creates a different letter in the Wolof alphabet and can produce a different word. So bax is the verb to boil (water, etc.) while baax (the same vowel sound just held out a little longer) is the word for “good”. My ears still can’t pick up the nuance of long and short vowels in everyday speech. And sometimes the difference between two words’ meanings is embarrassingly greater than the similar sounds would lead one to imagine. By saying, Dama bëgg soow, you are communicating that you want some yogurt. If you simply shorten that “o” sound, you are communicating that you need to pee.

Another interesting layer to Wolof that I quickly discovered is the lack of “to be” verb. In English, I can say, “I am American,” “I am eating,” “I am happy.” Of course Wolof has ways of expressing those same things, but in each case it’s a different construction, none of which contain a literal “to be” verb. Americain laa. Maa ngiy lekk. Kontaan naa. I learned early that looking for a Wolof “to be” verb was a waste of time .

A third layer is the elasticity of meaning in Wolof. One word can mean lots of different things. I’m not sure if Wolof is any more elastic than other languages; maybe words are always this flexible and it’s only when the language is not your mother-tongue that you notice. But as I’m learning Wolof, it certainly seems to me that meaning is much harder to nail down. For example, the word diggante can be defined as “middle,” “relationship,” or “distance.” One can sort of see the connection among the words, but it’s a stretch. And that’s how Wolof is; it stretches to encompass a lot of possible ideas in a single word. Here’s a common experience for me in Wolof learning: I learn the definition of a word and work to put it to memory. Then, just when I thought I’d finally gotten a handle of where and how to use it, the word pops up in a surprising context; that’s when I’m told, “Oh yeah, that word can also mean x or y or even sometimes z.” Sigh. A bit of imagination is needed to grasp the sense behind Wolof’s elastic words.

And finally, there’s the brevity of the Wolof language. This is a layer that I find both frustrating and fascinating. Wolof-speakers certainly don’t waste their breath. This is especially evident in their proverbs. Ku muñ muuñ is a good example. The best English translation of this proverb is, “The person who accepts his/her condition and perseveres will smile in the end.” It’s striking how few Wolof words are needed to express that idea as compared to the English!

All these layers of the Wolof language make learning it quite the brain-altering process (in my limited experience). If I try to understand and speak this new language while using my English or French structures and view of the world, I simply don’t get anywhere. But when I can set aside the rules I’ve until now followed, consciously or subconsciously,  for communicating, I find an interesting set of rules that is unfamiliar but which allows me to see things in a slightly different light.

It’s especially exciting for me when my Wolof learning causes me to hear God’s Word in a new way. This was the case recently when I read the following, the Wolof version of 1 Timothy 1:15: Kirist Yeesu ganesi na àddina, ngir musal bàkkaarkat yi, te maa ci raw! (“Chris Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”) The English version says that Jesus “came into” the world. The Wolof version expresses that in the word ganesi. I didn’t know this word, but I recognized the root gan. That’s a word I know well because it is my state here in West Africa – “guest.” Ganesi then is the verb “to come to a place as a guest to stay for a while.” So that’s how Christ’s coming into the world is put in Wolof. There’s something in that which I find beautiful and not quite present in the English words. Maybe it’s my experience as a gan that causes me to resonate with the Wolof version. I’m in a country where hospitality towards guests is an extremely high value – from the way they feed me, to the way they walk me all the way to the bus stop, to the way they call me “daughter” and “sister.” Yet all that doesn’t stop me from feeling like an outsider, a child, a misfit here. Jesus left heaven to ganesi here on earth, not as a mere visitor but as someone with the intention of staying awhile. He took on the uncomfortable state of an outsider – and I doubt He had the kind of welcome that I’m experiencing – in order to save sinners. Maybe my resonating with the Wolof version is due to my belief that being a stranger in someone else’s country is the only way to understand their life. It is often humbling, humiliating even; yet, there is no short-cut to a comprehension at the level of sharing life. And in Wolof culture, you greatly honor people by being a guest in their home. How much more of an honor to mankind to receive the Son of God as a guest here on earth, and yet few recognized who this guest was. How much more was His humiliation compared to anything we ourselves could experience as foreigners. And what good news that Jesus came so none of us would have to be foreigners to God but rather, can be brought near to Him!

This gan is far from mastering Wolof. But I trust that with each new layer of discovery, I’m one step closer to functionally using this national language of the country in which I live. And in each layer, there are jewels that await!

On October 5, I experienced my first Tabaski. Tabaski is the most important Muslim holiday here in this country. In their tradition, the holiday commemorates Abraham’s act of obeying God in being willing to sacrifice his son Ishmael, and it commemorates also God’s provision of a ram as an acceptable sacrifice. And so once a year, faithful Muslims spend the money they’ve been saving up for months to purchase a ram. The ram is slaughtered as a sacrifice atoning for one’s household.

It’s an all-day affair as there is a great amount of lamb meat to grill and consume! The meat cannot be sold as that would be symbolically like selling one’s son. But meat is distributed to all one’s neighbors (regardless of religion).

???????????????????????????????

I spent most of the day with the Sankhare-Soumare household, with whom I lived for the month of August. I was grateful for their continued hospitality in inviting me (and I admit I was also grateful to have arrived after the five sheep were slaughtered on the roof). I count it a privilege to know this Muslim family with whom I could spend my first Tabaski, since it plays such an important role in the culture here.

There’s a special series of Wolof greetings said at Tabaski:
Baal ma aq. (“Please forgive me.”)
Baal naa la. Nga baal ma. (“I forgive you. Forgive me too.”)
Ya nanu Yàlla bole baal. (“May God forgive us together.”)
Amin! (“Amen”)
Deweeneti (“Next year…”)
Fekkeldi woon. (“…may you be found here.”)

During this holiday people are especially conscious of their sin against others and their need for a sacrifice.

So I couldn’t help but be moved to tears as I happened to read the following prayer from “The Valley of Vision” on the morning of Tabaski:

O Source of all good,
What shall I render to thee for the gift of gifts, thine own dear Son, begotten, not created, my Redeemer, proxy, substitute,
his self-emptying incomprehensible,
his infinity of love beyond the heart’s grasp.

Herein is wonder of wonders:
he came below to raise me above,
was born like me that I might become like him.

Herein is love;
when I cannot rise to him he draws near on wings of grace,
to raise me to himself.

Herein is power;
when Deity and humanity were infinitely apart he united them in indissoluble unity,
the uncreated and the created.

Herein is wisdom;
when I was undone, with no will to return to him,
and no intellect to devise recovery,
he came, God-incarnate, to save me to the uttermost,
as man to die my death,
to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
to work out a perfect righteousness for me.

O God, take me in spirit to the watchful shepherds, and enlarge my mind;
let me hear good tidings of great joy,
and hearing, believe, rejoice, praise, adore,
my conscience bathed in an ocean of repose,
my eyes uplifted to a reconciled Father;
place me with ox, ass, camel, goat,
to look with them upon my Redeemer’s face,
and in him account myself delivered from sin;
let me with Simeon clasp the new-born child to my heart,
embrace him with undying faith,
exulting that he is mine and I am his.

In him thou has given me so much
that heaven can give no more.

Why do you do what you do? (Or, put another way, why do you choose not to do what you don’t do?)

I was forced to consider these questions recently as I took in a chapter of Celebration of Discipline, one of my recent reading selections. Author Richard Foster compares “self-righteous service” to “true service.” I was convicted in reading the contrasting lists. As it applies to any of us in whatever work and place we find ourselves, I wanted to share it.

celebration of discipline

Self-righteous service:

  • is impressed with the ‘big deal’
  • is concerned to make impressive gains
  • enjoys serving, especially when service is titanic
  • requires external rewards
  • needs to know that people see and appreciate the effort
  • seeks human applause with proper religious modesty
  • is highly concerned about results
  • waits for reciprocation of service
  • is bitter when results fall below expectations
  • picks whom to serve (the low and defenseless in order to gain a humble image; the high and powerful to gain other advantages)
  • is affected by moods and whims
  • serves only when there is a ‘feeling’ to serve
  • is temporary
  • functions only while specific acts of service are being performed
  • is insensitive
  • insists on meeting needs even when doing so is destructive
  • demands the opportunity to help
  • fractures community
  • centers on glorification of the individual
  • puts others into its debt and becomes one of the most subtle and destructive forms of manipulation known

True service:

  • doesn’t distinguish small from large service
  • rests contented in hiddenness
  • doesn’t fear attention but doesn’t seek it either
  • finds the divine nod of approval to be completely sufficient
  • is free of the need to calculate results
  • delights only in service
  • serves enemies as freely as friends
  • is indiscriminate in ministry
  • ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need
  • knows that the service disciplines the feelings, rather than allowing the feeling to control the service
  • is a life-style
  • acts from ingrained patterns of living
  • springs spontaneously to meet human need
  • can withhold service as freely as perform it
  • can listen with tenderness and patience before acting
  • can serve by waiting in silence
  • builds community
  • quietly and unpretentiously goes about caring for the needs of others
  • draws, binds, heals, and builds

Inevitably, there are certain things for which one is unprepared when it comes to life overseas. Certain topics aren’t covered in the pre-field training. One just has to wait, discover for oneself, and hope one has the wherewithal to handle what cannot be taught ahead of time. And “fake it ’til you make it” becomes one’s mantra.

A case in point: getting dressed.

Clare & I wearing our first traditional outfits made soon after our arrival

Clare & I wearing our first traditional outfits made soon after our arrival

There’s a Wolof proverb that goes, “Lekkal li la neex waaye solal li neex nit ñi.” (Eat what you like, but wear what others like – meaning, You eat for yourself so the foods you choose matter only to you, but you dress for others so the clothes you choose matter to everyone.) As always, the proverb reveals an important cultural aspect. How you dress in this part of West Africa is a primary way of respecting and honoring both the people that raised you and the people who will see you. You don’t have to be here very long to realize that clothing is what people spend their money on. When women here in the city go out grocery shopping, they often are dressed to the gills (heels included sometimes). If there’s a proverb about something, and a society’s economics corroborate its importance, you can be pretty sure it’s a significant cultural value.

To what extent does a foreigner living in this context question or follow suit with the value on nice clothing? Believe me, I’ve wondered about that a lot. But right now, I’m just trying to decide what to put on before leaving my apartment.

Deciding what I’ll wear on any given day in West Africa is a process fraught with questions, from philosophical to practical. “Who will see me today and what will they think of this outfit?” “What is more important to me today — comfort or respect from passersby?” “How many car rapides will I be climbing into and jumping out of today, and will I be able to do it in this skirt?” Do I feel like fighting with a pagne today?” (I still haven’t perfected that fine art of walking in a West African wrap-around skirt. My years as an athlete certainly didn’t help me on that one.) “Do I want to dress more like my age group here (tending towards a more progressive, Western style) or do I go for the more traditional style, hoping to display my appreciation for the culture?” (Ladies, wondering what your West African style as an expatriate might be? Simply consult this handy flowchart.)

And that’s nothing compared to the process of procuring outfits here in the first place. No one would obligate me to dress in the local style. I certainly don’t every day. However, if I’m wanting to understand and participate in everyday life here, then the process of getting clothes is not a step to bypass. And the region is well-known for its fabrics and tailors, so why not take advantage of the beautiful workmanship?

I’m all for beautiful workmanship, but here’s where I must confess that it’s only been in the past month or so that I’ve found any joy whatsoever in the process of buying fabric and getting a West African outfit made. Up until recently, it was stressful and only stressful. It’s hard enough in my home culture, where I know the process and the language, to care about buying clothes!

Step 1: Navigate block upon block, stall after stall of cloth vendors like the one below, looking for a cloth you can imagine wearing. I remember the first time I did this back in March. I was completely overwhelmed. All the fabrics looked the same to me! And if I had no idea what I would have the fabric made into, how could I choose? And how much to buy? And now I have to bargain for the price?? Fabrics come in different thicknesses, different materials, different motifs, different degrees of “fancy,” widely-varying prices. And of course, in an unending array of colors.

fabric seller

Step 2: Find a tailor that you trust to make something wearable out of the fabric you’ve bought. By this point, you really do need to have at least a general idea of what you’d like the tailor to make for you. And here comes the hardest part: explaining your idea to the person who will actually create it. The tailor may have some catalogs, or you may have other sources of pictures of West African-style outfits. Or, you may feel ready to put your drawing skills to the test and sketch it yourself. Or, you may even feel up to putting your language skills to the test and verbally explain it. I haven’t been brave enough to attempt that last one, with my limited sewing vocabulary in any language! I’ve found it’s easier for everyone involved if there’s at least a visual starting point. It was after my first trip to the tailor, when my mind nearly exploded attempting to decide what I wanted and how to explain it, that I really started looking hard at the clothing around me. I started to observe much more closely. I started to pick up on how outfits are sewn, what fabrics are used in which ways, what kinds of additions are possible. And slowly, I began accumulating ideas of styles I could imagine myself wearing.

Once you’ve completed your explanation, the tailor takes your measurements. The only things left are deciding when it will be ready to pick up (with the standard Inshallah — “Lord willing” — which leaves room for any myriad of changes to the time agreed upon) and how much it will cost (more bargaining).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Moustapha, my tailor

Step 3: Return to the tailor to pick up your finished outfit!

If all goes well, you could end up with a dress like the one below, which even my younger brother had to compliment me on when he saw me in it via Skype.

???????????????????????????????

If all goes somewhat less according to plan, you may end up with an outfit like the one below. The dark blue piece wasn’t part of the original skirt. The first result: a skirt that I could put on but that I could barely walk or get in a taxi in, let alone climb up into a car rapide in! But not to worry: there’s always more fabric to be bought and alterations to be made. Thanks to my tailor’s dark blue insert in the seam at the back (and why not throw in there a matching head scarf?), I can do more than just stand in this outfit.

??????????????????????

I’m still figuring the whole system out. But one secret I quickly discovered was to hold lightly to one’s ideas of how an outfit will turn out (and this is where my uncaring attitude about clothes comes in handy). If you’re willing to trust the tailor, if you’re willing to wear whatever fits and seems culturally appropriate (whether or not it’s exactly what you were imagining or even what you’d choose to wear in your home culture), you’ll be satisfied.

And here’s hoping that everyone taking notice of my clothes here is satisfied as well!

My planner tells me that it’s the first day of autumn today. Not that I would have had the slightest clue from the climate and fauna here where I’m living. Those familiar four seasons don’t apply in this part of the world. Something in me is sad to be missing the beautiful fall colors and crisp air. But a big part of me is rejoicing at the discovery of a new cycle of seasons. I’ve experienced the long-awaited rainy season after the dry season. And it’s a glorious thing.

A rainfall is usually announced by a strong wind that whips through the hot, stagnant air. (I will never forget my first experience of that wind. As the family I was living with rushed around to shut windows and doors, bring in the drying laundry, and pull in furniture not under shelter, all I could do was stand in front of my open window and take in with all my senses that cool, abrupt wind.) The drops begin to fall; everything comes to a bit of a halt. And after the rain ends, the stuffy humidity has been replaced, for a time, by air so fresh that one wonders on which new planet the storm dropped its happy hostages.

another storm rolling in...

another storm rolling in…

I had the opportunity to leave the city and travel into the Seereer countryside a couple weeks ago. The trip was to visit in their villages the women who had received the audio New Testament in their language back in July. Little did I know what was awaiting me out in the bush…

image (25) 7 image (10)

…lush, green pastures!

I could hardly believe my eyes. These very fields were little more than sand the last time I was here in July. Rain can really make that big of a difference? Of course I’d heard about the crops that would grow during the rainy season. But I never expected it all to be this green.

driving through millet fields

driving through millet fields

The millet is at varying heights, depending on how much rain has fallen in an area. This crop is not as high as it should be by now, as the rains were late. But the millet is growing now, and the farmers are praying that enough more rainy days will come for it to reach the point of harvesting.

The millet is at varying heights, depending on how much rain has fallen. This field’s crop is not as high as it should be by now, as the rains were late. But the millet is growing now, and the farmers pray that enough more rainy days are left for it to reach the point of harvesting.

I had to share the green-ness since I’ve often made note of the lack of it. I’m going on record to say that the region where I’m living can be more than dusty and brown. Seven months into life here, I’m discovering new layers of beauty and color. I’m learning that I won’t see all that this part of West Africa has to offer until I’ve been in it, at the very least, a whole year.

image (24) image (20) image (4)

Good things come to those that wait through the dry season. And one needs to hang around in a new place long enough to glimpse the full array of beauty through the whole cycle of its seasons.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 169 other followers