“Your baby is ugly!” (& other ways to make conversation)

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.

  1. Joanne said:

    I’m sure you were a beautiful baby, and your parents did not mind hearing that:-)
    So many different cultures in our world.

  2. Tom Stein said:

    Kyria – thanks for sharing this. It all sounds complicated! But I am sure you are learning well. Blessings to you –

  3. Kyria,

    I just read this post. SOooo fascinating! I have heard about the baby things before (some cultures they also “spit” on the baby while they say the baby is ugly?) But wow. And props to you for this immersion. Looking forward to hearing more stories!! xo

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