There is a corner store that sells shoes, although store may be a generous word. The ‘store’ is simply a bunch of shoes laid out on the sidewalk and an awning, but for all intents and purposes it’s a shoe store. Every day when I pass this store, there is a small crowd of people sitting on benches and drinking attaya, Senegalese tea.
Today as I walked past this store on my way home, I hear someone call out, “What’s up man?”
Since it was said in English, I figured it was directed at me, being the only white person in the neighborhood.
I called back, “Asalaamalekum”, the universal Senegalese greeting.
“Malekumsalaam, nanga def?” They respond, hello, how are you?.
“Uhh… mangi fii reek”, I am here only.
“Ana wa kër ge?” How is your family?
“Ñunga fa” They are there (meaning they are fine)
I smiled to myself; I had just successfully executed a greeting sequence with a group of complete strangers almost perfectly. Excellent!.
They asked me my name, and I responded, “My name is Jake”.
“Oui, Jek” I sighed. No one can pronounce my name correctly! I made a mental note to simply introduce myself as Jek from then on. I asked them what their names were, and learned that I had greeted Yayaakane, Mamadou, and Abdou. They invited me to sit down and have tea with them, to which I responded yes, and they cleared a spot for me on one of the benches.
I sat down tentatively, wondering how on earth this situation was going to transpire. My communication in French is flaky at best, and holding a conversation in Wolof is absolutely beyond my range of capabilities.
“Are you American?” Yayaakane (Yayaa for short) asked me in French.
“Yes, I’m American. I’m here in Senegal for a year.” I responded, also in French.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m taking a gap year and I will go to a village to work” My french was broken and stuttered, but I managed to get the point across. Unsurprisingly, they had never heard of a gap year before, so I explained the concept to them. They were amazed that such an option even existed, and they all agreed that they wished they could have traveled abroad after high school.
My conversation with ‘the shoe store crew’ lasted for an hour and a half. I told them about my upcoming apprenticeship and that I was going to have to learn Pulaar, another native Senegalese language, and they taught me some words that I could use. They were also interested in what types of shoes I had, I figured because they were shoe salesmen. As the conversation went on, I was able to discern the differences between their questions.
Mamadou was really interested in American music and wondered if I had ever been to a Lil’ Wayne concert. I told him I hadn’t, but that last weekend I went to a Youssou Ndor concert, who is by far the most famous Senegalese musician. Mamadou seemed equally impressed by the fact that I even knew who Youssou Ndor was, much less that I had attended his concert. I also told him that I was a DJ and promised him I would dj for him sometime.
Abdou wanted to know all about American cities, and if I had been there. Yes, I’ve been to New York, no there aren’t gangsters everywhere. No I hadn’t been to New Orleans, but I hoped to go someday. No I hadn’t been to Los Angeles, but one of my friends from my group lives there and says it’s a great place. Abdou loved hearing about the cities and told me that he hoped to go to Memphis someday, where his uncle is studying to be a doctor.
Yayaa asked me if it was true that most Americans only speak one language, to which I told him yes. He had a hard time believing this, saying that there had to be some people who spoke English and Wolof out there. I laughed and told him that almost no one in the States had even heard of Wolof, much less could speak it.
He pondered this for a while, then said, “Barack Obama is your president right?”. I told him he was. Yayaa sat back for a moment, and then asked me a question I was not expecting.
“What do you think of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?”
I blinked a couple times before responding. “I think that it’s bad.”
“America is spending so much money for equipment and things, its very bad”
I told him I agreed with him, and that we should never have started the wars in the first place.
“Exactly,” he said. “America spends millions and millions of dollars for the war.” (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the number was billions, approaching trillions). “Senegal has so many problems with unemployment, poverty, and education. Imagine if all the money America spent on these wars went to helping people like us in Senegal. Everything would be so different!”
Eventually, I regretfully told my new friends that I had to return home but that I was extremely thankful for the conversation and the tea. “The tubaab loves attaya!” they exclaimed. Tubaab is the Wolof word for white person.
I gathered my things, but before I left they had time to teach me one more word in Pulaar.
“Ha jango!” Yayaa said, prompting the others to repeat “ha jango!” with him.
“What does ‘ha jango’ mean?” I asked.
“It’s like ‘cu suba’ in Wolof, or “a demain” in French. You are coming back tomorrow aren’t you? We’ll be here all day with our shoes and our attaya”
“Ah,” I said, “bien sûr!” of course, I said. I smiled. “Ha jango, mon freres”.