Mel ak Tapha nungi toog ci ker ga….

…Ibou xaritu tapha new na.

The translation of the above phrases would be: Mel and Tapha are sitting in the house; Ibou, Tapha’s friend, has arrived. This is a direct excerpt from one of the first dialogues in my Wolof textbook. During my daily three-hour Wolof classes, we generally dedicate a generous amount of time to repeating dialogues, which would probably explain why, of all phrases, I seem to have absorbed this one so well. Years from now when I struggle to remember any Wolof (not that I plan on forgetting it…) I may not remember how to say “my name is” but I will almost certainly remember “Mel ak Tapha….” Its very satisfying to say.

Although I have experience learning foreign languages (Italian and French) it has been a while since I have started a language from scratch. This experience so far has been one of ups and downs, and after about two and a half weeks of class, I can surely say that I am very much still at the beginning and starting to wonder if it is even possible for me to really learn and understand this language before May comes along.  In class I am scribbling down more random words than I am able to remember (we learn so much every day!)  and then later at home I sit in the courtyard and let the waves of jibberish wash over me. Every once in a while I’ll catch a word I recognize and I might repeat it – my contribution to the converstation – as if to announce “ha! I understood that one!” Its also fun to throw in a few catchy wolof phrases into everyday chit-chat with my friends at the baobab center, or even my host family. Phrases such as “degg, degg” (pronounced dugaduga and meaning “thats true”) or “du dara” (its nothing) or the classic “alxamdoulilay” (thanks be to God) which I would say is maybe the single most used word in Senegal, written on the fronts of colorfully painted buses, and used by my jolly wolof teacher, Zator, to  fill silences during class.

Learning a language from scratch is kind of like putting together the pieces of a puzzle that when complete will be a map: a map to navigate the mysterious territory of an unfamiliar culture. My puzzle/map started out blank and now I’d say it looks more like an awkwardly toothless smile, with a few random, disconnected pieces in place, and many more that I have in my notes but have yet to make sense of, and many more still that I have yet to gather. Then there are the rules of the game – grammar and pronunciation, for example – slight distinctions in inflection and length of vowels that distinguish words that I am struggling to hear at this point, let alone produce with my mouth. When I attempt to say for example “I am waiting,” Mangiy xaar, I risk saying that I am a watermelon (xaal) or I am a goat (xarr).

And yet the bits of knowledge that I have started to put together so far have already revealed some interesting characteristics of Senegalese culture. The fact for example that there does not exist a way to say please, which even carries over into the way people speak French here. I have often been a little taken aback by the way people just command eachother about: go buy bread! Or, give me some water! Or even, buy me a telephone for my birthday! There also doesn’t exist a word for  “probably” in wolof. In place of probably, Zator tells me, people generally say “it is possible,” just as the Senegalese conclude any prediction about the future with inshallah, God willing. But of course there are other words that we don’t have in english, such a verb for pouring tea: xiim.

Learning Wolof makes me think back to our indepth discussions (and joking) about “conflicting mental models” during training in Petaluma. Each day I walk into class with a list of english or french words and expressions that I consider essential for everyday communication (that’s my mental model speaking), which I would like to know how to say in Wolof. Almost fifty percent of the time, there isn’t an equivalent. Instead, I walk away with a whole other list of expressions that I would have never have thought to use before: ways to joke with my “name-sake cousins” about who eats more (in Senegal, when you meet someone who has a last name related ethnically to yours, you will automatically call him or her your slave, or joke about how much rice he or she eats) or to say when I  greet a friend “you are alive just as my parents are, thanks be to God.”

Although I feel I still have so much to ask and learn during these last ten days at the Baobab Center, I am also very much looking forward to the challenge of trying to speak Wolof with my new family in Sebikotane (where I will spend the next six months), as I have been communicating mostly in French with my family here in Dakar. I plan on announcing when I arrive: “I don’t speak French!”  We’ll see how that goes….

Ba beneen, inshallah! (Until next time, God willing)