I was white; if anything I’d speak French. I’m guessing that’s what West Africans of that region expect to hear from foreigners in general. Some have learned basic French phrases, even if they didn’t go to school, enough to greet me in French and serve as a quasi-interpreter for their neighbors. But it’s a foreign language for all of them; it’s a language they have to learn, not the language that they pick up at their mother’s breast. It’s not the language that is tied to their identity or their daily life. It’s not the language they revert to for expressing their deepest emotions.
No, their “heart language” is one of 35 or so that have been spoken by the region’s people groups long before French was ever uttered on its soon-to-be colonized shores. Where would my team and I start with 35 languages spoken in a country, especially when we’d only be there for 10 days? Thankfully, we knew many of the people we’d be meeting would be from the Serer-Sine people group. And we knew that if they weren’t Serer-Sine, they’d likely know some Wolof since 80% of the population speaks that language to some extent. So I had been studying some basic phrases in each language, enough to greet someone and introduce myself. But as I’d learned in my Second Language and Culture Acquisition class at GIAL, what I really needed in order to learn these languages were not courses or textbooks but native speakers… and here we were surrounded by them! I woke up each morning thinking, “Oh goodie, I get to learn more language today!”
So during the morning bus rides, I studied the Serer-Sine greetings and responses. I’d heard that greetings were very important in West Africa, that they served as a doorway to relationships and as a means of social maintenance. Of course, this is the case in many parts of the world, even in the US. But the patterns and norms that greetings follow vary widely. In this particular part of West Africa, the greetings have a rhythmic feel and they are not to be rushed through. From what I observed, it’s common for one person to ask the questions after the other’s health, family, house, work, etc., and for the other to respond. Again, being white — I quickly discovered — automatically put me in the question-asking role simply because they didn’t expect me to speak Serer-Sine or Wolof and wouldn’t attempt to engage me in their usual greeting routine. I would have to initiate it.
So I put as much to memory during our team’s down time as I could. Greetings are not only words; non-verbal patterns of handshaking and curtseying also had to be learned once I was there. I asked some questions of our local guides and observed as much as I could of the interactions around us, especially to know what was appropriate for a young woman. Stepping off the bus, I’d put my notes away and try to use as many of the phrases as possible with the people I’d meet. “Mbaldo!” I’d say (if it was morning), as I stretched out my hand and curtseyed.
And that’s when I’d see it: the look that was gold. Their faces would light up with surprise and delight at hearing this white girl butcher their familiar greeting and awkwardly stoop in an attempt to show respect. Their smiles said it all (you can sort of see the look I’m talking about on the women’s faces below). “Fedee jamm!” was their response, almost sing-songy. The greeting routine would go on from there. I obviously wasn’t from there and my accent was horrible, but I’d shown that I wanted to know them which meant using and learning their language.Their look of delight and appreciation was a small glimpse to me of what it would mean to them to hear the gospel in their heart language, to see that God knew them and could understand their language.
I wanted to learn a few new phrases each day, so I could get a little further in the greeting ritual each day. There’s a whole list of possible question lines, and there are certain responses that are appropriate/ expected. So even if I knew the first few questions, I quickly ran out of things I could ask about; at that point, the person I was greeting would usually start asking me questions but if they weren’t ones I’d learned, I could only smile apologetically and say, “Nanim. Ondikrek.” (I don’t understand. I speak a little.) I perfected those two phrases, let me tell you!
A good morning-time greeting question is “Dana apax?” (Did you sleep well?). And the great (or tricky) thing about that phrase was it gave me practice every morning with the Serer-Sine imploded ‘d.’ We don’t have this sound in English, or in any European language as far as I know. I’d learned how to hear and say it in my Phonetics class, but now it was real. (If you want to try it, say ‘d’ but instead of pushing air out of your mouth as you say it, suck air into your mouth. If it sounds really funny to you, you probably just said an imploded ‘d’!!)
Of course, that look of delight and appreciation was not the only one I saw. I received other looks as I stumbled through learning some Serer-Sine and Wolof phrases. The blank look that told me I’d pronounced something so badly, it was unrecognizable. Or the look accompanied by slightly embarrassed giggling — which told me I’d said something that didn’t fit the situation, or worse, that made me sound like an idiot. But any discomfort and awkwardness was worth seeing the smile that said, “Wow, you care enough to stoop low enough to sound like an infant and learn the language that is necessary to know me.” And that look, to this foreign girl, was worth more than gold.