I had forgotten how far I had progressed in Wolof. I was stressing over the little things, the fact that I could understand about 20% of the words in a sentence but couldn’t string them together to make any kind of sense. All conversations that I observed during work at the Poste de Sante or amongst my family at home were elaborate dramas, carried out in my imagination. I would create extravagant suspenseful storylines to go along with the tones and gestures of the speaker and the reactions of the listener. For all I know, the conversations were just as dramatic as I imagined, as speaking Wolof seems to require the maximum amount of gesticulation possible. A true interaction with me, Fanta Cisse (yes my name is indeed Fanta, like the boisson), requires immense amount of patience and a little intuition, reading between the lines of my incredibly bad grammar and very limited vocabulary, all while interpreting my mad gestures.
But I’ve made progress. And I didn’t realize it until I saw others in the same condition that I was in when I first arrived in Sangalkam: eyes wide in surprise at the nurses in flip flops at the clinic, me sitting silently in the corner while they talk in rapid fire Wolof. The three “stagiaires” (interns) from France all had those familiar, deer-in-headlights expressions on their first day, the kind that I know I must have sported during my first week. It was interesting to watch them in the beginning, learning everything for the first time, navigating the hectic Poste and being told constantly that they should learn Wolof. They would stare in surprise when I, the toubab, began discussing how my weekend was in Wolof, or why I don’t want a husband right now, because “leggi, mangiy jang. Benene jamano, dinaa setti jekker,” or in other words, “Right now I am studying. In another time I will search for a husband.” But unlike me, they had French to fall back on, and at least a little bit of professional nursing training. I started with what felt like absolutely nothing, and have graduated to a small range of Wolof discussions and the ability to dress wounds, take blood pressure, and administer the occasional shot.
Perhaps work at the Poste isn’t exactly what I expected. Who knows what I did expect; I certainly don’t. What I do know is that the first five weeks in Sangalkam have challenged me intensely, confused me profoundly, and rewarded me immensely. I myself know that my Wolof is still pretty darn bad, but the look of amazement on the stagiaires’ faces when I say my Wolof greetings in rapid succession is certainly an ego boost. That combined with the nurses trying to get me to teach Wolof to the stagiaires makes me feel like I’m learning, however slowly, painfully, and awkwardly it may be.