Language


I would wager that some Cameroonian polygamists have discovered that maintaining two families isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I say the same thing about maintaining two blogs. When Kiva gets its dues, you lose out. I apologize. The best I can do is try to share the goods and hope to stretch them twice as far. The following comes from our Kiva Fellows Blog.

I am proud to say that I have earned two blisters in the last week: one from hand-washing my clothes (I’ve now learned to really scrub ‘em), and another from pulling the kernels off corncobs. As a woman who has earned most previous blisters from breaking in new hiking boots or rowing crew, both luxury sports of a sort, this feels different.

One GHAPE member who deserves a good, \Work in its many forms is so deeply ingrained in the culture in Bamenda that it takes shape in language. In pidgin, you would not believe how frequently the words “struggle” and “suffer” are used, usually not as self-pity but rather as matter-of-fact. When someone is getting by, they are “managing.” I suspect you may have to hear these words pronounced in Bamenda to get their full meaning.

My favorite new word is “ashia,” a way of greeting, sympathizing with, or appreciating someone who is working hard. The response, if you are a bit confused, as I was the first few times I received an “ashia”, is a simple “thank you.” The best parallel may be saying “bless you” when someone sneezes in the U.S. – although my sneezes here (which I’ve managed to suppress over the years so that they actually sound like the word “achoo”) tend to elicit laughter, since “achoo” is a favorite kind of soup in Cameroon.

Ashia has become a special word because there is no direct translation. It expresses something that I cannot express in my English – although when I tried to explain this to some people here, they tried to explain to me that “ashia” is English, meaning here that it is not from any one of the many dialects spoken in the Northwest Province, but is rather part of the common language, pidgin English.

Once I finally convinced my coworkers at GHAPE that we really don’t have the word or anything like it in the U.S., discussion ensued. Calista (the accountant) asked, “Well, how do you appreciate someone?” I struggled and pondered for the better part of five minutes, and finally offered the possibilities of “thank you”, “good work”, or “good luck,” none of which capture “ashia.” Could you say “Thank you” to a stranger on the street who you saw pushing an especially heavy load?

I’ve discovered that “ashia” is the best way to break the ice of being an obvious stranger. Naturally, as two of very few white folks in Bamenda (I may have seen two or three other white folks in the whole time I’ve been here), we stick out. By this time, five months of travel through West Africa later, we’re used to sticking out and everything that comes along with it – “You are welcome!” How is Cameroon?” “Come here!” “Where are you going?” “White man!” and many other things regularly shouted at us on an everyday walk to the market.

But, at a certain point, like one month into our stay in Bamenda, the desire to just be part of the scene grows. Since we can never be invisible, I’ve got a couple of tricks to break the ice or turn the tables. When an adult shouts, “White man” or once in a while acknowledges gender and says, “White woman,” I usually shout back “Black man!” This brings laughter that I find pretty refreshing after 26 years marinating in P.C. land, U.S.A. When it’s a child shouting, “White man!” and usually pointing, I either make faces and point back at them, or sing the song I’ve just learned, apparently a childhood favorite of everyone in Bamenda:

White man, white man, white man,
White man with a long nose,
Since my mother born me,
I’ve never seen a white man!

It doesn’t get much better than that for winning laughter and respect.

As far as fitting in goes, well, “ashia” is the best. I can catch someone’s eye as they’re toiling over some project, pronounce an “ashia,” and immediately feel some kind of communion. The communion is enhanced if I adapt the Bamenda way of addressing folks as “sister”, “brother”, “auntie”, “mami”, “pa,” etc.

The same day that we discussed the word “ashia,” Auntie Calista (the GHAPE accountant) asked me, “What do you say if you want to give someone respect?” This question also left me without a good response. Of course, we have “sir” or ma’am” but to my American ear now used to Cameroon, these both sound awfully formal. When we say “sir” or “ma’am” it is usually in a formal context, almost pushing someone away from us as we offer respect. In Cameroon, these respectful terms are add-ons to someone’s name and at least in feeling bring them closer. To an older woman or a woman I want to respect, I can say, “Auntie” or “Mami” (pronounced like mommy). To an older man, I can say “Pa.” To a woman about my age, I can say “Sister.” All these show respect and immediately break the ice for me, a “stranger” as they say here.

Not that there’s much ice in Cameroonian culture. Using these terms of respect, I don’t feel like I’m dancing the who-can-out-polite-who dance that I’ve felt in other parts of the world. I don’t ever feel like I’ve given someone offense. And, nearly every argument or serious discussion I’ve witnessed in Cameroon ends in laughter, usually a burst of it that comes out mid-rant as if someone has suddenly heard themselves talking or seen things form a bird’s eye view and finds it all hilarious.

This is a culture I enjoy settling into.

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feb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgWell, folks, time flies by and here we are on our second to last night in Dakar. I am now struggling to feb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5919.jpgtype on my English language keyboard (on my laptop) as I have become accustomed day by day to the French language keyboards dominating the internet café scene around these parts. My apologies for the lack of photographs in recent weeks: we live in a strange world these days – an enormous West African city with internet cafes on every corner, each filled to the brim, but all sharing a limited bandwidth so that none has the speed to upload more than a couple of images in an hour. But, we shall overcome, eventually.

A snapshot of life in Dakar: Dave and I arrived three weeks ago to the day, on February 11, and since arrival, we have been living with a kind Senegalese family in the northern banlieus of Camberene. Truth be told, I have still not figured out whether we are actually in Dakar proper or not, but we are at least on the peninsula, about one hour by bus from centre ville. Think of it as commuting from Hyde Park (south side of Chicago) to Rogers Park (far north side), then subtract the “El,” add round-the-clock traffic, multiply the bus systems by three, divide the cost of a taxi by 10 (and cap the cost at 2,000 CFA or $5 per ride with bargaining), substitute diesel for any other fuel type, throw a couple of horse carts on the sidelines, and eliminate bike lanes or any lane divisions whatsoever – and you will get the general picture.

Our adopted home is, miraculously, just a block from the beach, which is a blessing for many reasons. First and foremost, it gives us a respite from otherwise interminable city blocks. Second, it is our compass since we landed far off of our Lonely Planet map and must navigate the neighborhoods purely by sense of direction, frequent requests for mysterious landmarks that seem to delineate the city for locals (i.e. “Eglise,” or “La grande mosquée prés de la mer,” or “Pharmacie Yacine”), and pure trial and error; for me, it was a boon to discover that if I am truly lost I can just stop, wait for the call to prayer to end at the nearest mosque, listen for the sea, and head in that direction.

But, before your imaginations run away with visions of a tropical beach paradise, let me clarify the most visible purpose of the sea in this city: it is the most convenient trash dump for all the surrounding neighborhoods. So, no matter how I love bathing, I would not think of setting more than a foot in the ocean around here. To arrive at the beach from our house, we navigate a veritable levy of refuse, from broken flip-flops to fish heads and food scraps. Goats love it. Rats love it. Children seem to still be able to enjoy a game that looks like king of the castle. For our part, we plug our noses and scamper to the other side, where the sea does its part, clearing away 25 meters of sand fit for walking, running, push-ups (men here dig troughs in the sand to heighten the push-up experience), and of course, football.

We do feel close to nature. Our house boasts two sheep – one male and one female, carefully tied at just enough distance from one another to assure no hanky-panky – one chicken, a neighbor’s rooster (who shares his daybreak services with us), a bevy of mice, cockroaches, and flies. No mosquitoes as of yet, but we sleep in our mosquito tent nonetheless. Call us romantic.

feb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5921.jpgfeb12-22_2008_dakar-senegal5921.jpgDave and I are learning French, each with our own pace and method. Each morning, I wake up, thanks to the rooster, at 7:00 AM, make coffee, and haul derriere to school for four hours of French class. Dave tried this schedule for the first few days, but even his love of classroom learning could not overcome the early hour, and he switched to home schooling. I am trying to study for two, but find the going somewhat uphill since Wolof is more dominant here than French, and many – including our host mother – speak very little if any of the language. Thus, immersion it is not, but the important things are coming along, I have just purchased my first French language novel by a Senegalese authoress, and I am certain that I can haggle the heck out of any taxi driver between here and Cameroon.

As I read him bits from this posting, Dave reminds me to mention that we have discovered the wonderful world of bootleg DVDs. Most recently, on our five-day trip to the Gambia (English language!), we found the 25-movie-per-disc phenomenon, and we now have every major American picture made on the subjects of Africa, apartheid, and Hollywoodized ethnic cleansing on one disc. Thank you, China, for filling the developing world with such treasures! Seriously, on a side note, the percentage of products in the Senegalese markets that are “made in China” is astonishing. Luckily, we have found tissues manufactured in the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire and vats of homemade peanut butter (called “tigga digga”) in nearly every corner store, which sums up a large percentage of our daily purchases.

And so, our study of local economics and means of transportation continues…in new and different landscapes. Mali around the corner and Cameroon just appearing on the horizon. Dakar, until next time!

Walk with Cathy in Burgo de OsmaIt is a blessing to speak the language of the country you are in. Such was my relief when we stepped off our Easy Jet flight in the Barcelona airport one week ago. When we began to head in the wrong direction for the baggage claim, I could without thinking or gesturing too wildly or sheepishly speaking English, ask for directions. True, I may have offended a Catalan, but speaking a common second language is still an improvement – and probably the best I can hope for in coming months.

Plaza George OrwellPlaza George OrwellBarcelona was also blessedly balmy after Berlin, and Dave and I happily shed our coats (and backpacks) at the hostel before heading out in the Barri Gotic. It wasn’t quite sunny or quite Plaza George Orwellwarm, but it felt like spring to us and we practically skipped through the streets, snapping pictures of laundry hanging out to dry, and plants drooping off of balconies, until we came to Port Vella, the old port.  There, we devoted our first afternoon to the Museum of Catalonian History, which like the Museum of German History the afternoon before, was thorough from prehistory to recent times, overwhelming, and at times, a touch one-sided in favor of the nation writing its own history.

For example, any visitor to the Catalonian History Museum could leave believing that Catalonia has been mostly independent for most of its history, with a few tragic breaks, such as the centuries following the War of Spanish Succession, and again after the Spanish Civil War. Ask a Spaniard from another region and they will most likely explain that Catalonia has never been independent, but has rather been under the rule of some empire, kingdom, or nation-state since forever. The same outsider perspective will explain that Catalan has only been a written language for about the last century.

Nevertheless, what impresses me is the region’s ability to forge an independent identity and a certain perspective on Spanish history, aided by bilingual signs and monuments to Catalan heroes all around the city. But it seems simultaneously to me that the mobility of people (whether tourists such as me or young Spaniards from other regions) will always give favor to a lingua franca – such as the ubiquitous English in Germany and northern Europe.

Aside from our required and rewarding tour of Gaudi’s architecture, which occupied the better part of a day, the highlight of Barcelona for me was a two hour tour we were given by Ana, the Spanish friend of our friend Ian from Seattle, and her boyfriend Urial, who showed us some sights off the beaten path. We wandered past the smallest shop in Barcelona (literally, a medieval window front measuring about 3 by 6 feet, sadly no longer in use) and down into a small square with a church on one side and a three-on-three futbol game in the center. Ana and Urial showed us the wall of the church, pitted from gunfire of nearly 70 years ago, when Franco’s army executed defeated Catalan republicanos. Both Ana and Urial also had stories to share of their own grandfathers’ experiences during the civil war.

From Barcelona, we took a train to Zaragoza, cutting up through the Aragon region that I know mostly as a Civil War battlefield from having read the first chapters of Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. There were few signs from a distance of such violence on the misty hillsides. From Zaragoza, we took a bus up into Soria, arriving in the small town of Burgo de Osma just in time for Spanish lunch at nearly 4 PM (those who know me and my eating habits will know that I am well-suited for the Spanish meal schedule).

We were given a warm welcome indeed in Burgo de Osma, where the aunt of Dave’s best friend from childhood has lived with her Spanish husband and children for the last several decades. One of her sons, an architect named Sevi, who we were fortunate to meet, had designed a home for his parents in the hills outside the town. The home acts as a picture frame, so that on all sides windows look out to frame the hills and farmland. It was snowing as we arrived, drove up the long dirt road, and while we looked out the windows over lunch. But, by the time that we cleared up from lunch and went out for a 4km walk with the 5 dogs, the snow had stopped, the sky had cleared and chilled, and we watched a beautiful dusk fall over the landscape.

Time flies by in Spain, most likely because of the language, making conversations easy, the hospitality and good company of so many. From Burgo de Osma, we continued on to Madrid, where we met Cindy (our German host), who could not bear to say goodbye in Berlin. The three of us stayed with our friend and former Spanish teacher, Juan, and his family near to the Casa del Campo, southwest of central Madrid. Four days in good company flew by, until suddenly, we were bidding adios, packing our bags, and boarding the flight to Casablanca.

I feel in many ways ill-prepared for Morocco, a land where I can at best stumble through the most basic of conversations in a mutual third language (French), but we have arrived. The rest of the journey spreads out before us, with many a challenge and beaucoup de opportunities – yesterday Casablanca, today Rabat, tomorrow Fez, then who knows?