Question, argue, negotiate, discuss, fuss, fuss, fuss, something pops…and you get your answer

“Jàmm rekk.”

Only peace.

After my fourth class of Wolof I can barely count to 4, although I can say hello, how are you (in 5 different ways) and ask about the health and wellbeing of every single member of your family. Wolof also makes a distinction in the way of questioning and answering based on whether or not you are located at that person’s home (where the family lives) or whether you meet in another location. This makes me want to get invited to someone’s home just so I can have the pleasure of correctly using this greeting nuance in real life. Instead, we practice in the classroom. Repeating, re-reading, muttering under our breaths and trying to hear the difference between a strong, accentuated “A!” and a less accentuated yet still forceful “a!”. Umm…be careful, the teacher warns us:

  • “Làkk” means to speak a language
  • “Lakk” means to burn.

Too bad I can’t hear the difference.

Kind of how my francophone colleagues say “sheep” instead of “ship” (bless them, my ear can barely discriminate between “roue” and “rue“!) and how I thought for the past 2 months that one of the vessels we were surveying is called “Sister Endurance” when in fact it is called “Seastar Endurance”. Ahh.. well, yes. For a cargo freighter, Seastar does make a bit more sense than Sister.

So wooly boats, streets and wheels aside, whatever it is that I’m stuttering out right now I feel closer to burning Wolof (sorry!) than to actually speaking it.

The classes are great opportunities to nitpick at every little linguistic detail I and my classmates can think of. I have noticed 2 general trends when it comes to getting our answers. First, one of us makes a remark about one of the phrases in the lesson’s dialogue. We get fussy about why an article is like this or why a preposition is like that. We’re 9 people, from 4 continents, likely holding a dozen distinct languages between us…conversations get interesting, fast. So far, a deeper questioning-of-Wolof situation has evolved in one of 2 ways:

Option 1: 

1. The teacher tells us to calm down (N’dank, n’dank!) and stop trying to understand things so soon. Foolish us. He recommends we fully accept certain things as they are, at least for now. He promises that we will learn what we want to know at some time in the future.

To summarize for your notes: The answer to your question is: you are not meant to know yet.

Option 2:

2. Our question sparks other questions and spirals into a small argument. We fuel the spontaneous blaze as everyone raises their own voice to repeat what they think they have learned and confirm this new learning with the teacher. Noise follows. We take a breath, noise dies down. The teacher shows us that in French there are arbitrary grammar rules too. This is meant to encourage acceptance of Wolof’s oddities (thus saving him from the explaining). Then, he translates his French grammar lesson to English because half of the class does not speak French (blank stares). Then, finally, with surprising clarity he gives the answer we have been waiting for. This is because of that because it belongs in that other category. Oh! We exclaim. Oh! Oh! Well that is exactly what we wanted to know! How straight-forward it all seems now.

Point #2, to summarize for your notes: The way to receive the clear answer to your question seems to be: Question, argue, negotiate, discuss, fuss, fuss, fuss, something pops…and you get your answer.

Actually, that summarizes my first few weeks in Senegal pretty well! Life, work and Wolof bumble along, in its own sauce of blissful surrender and ruckus of negotiation and insistency. At least, I think, I’m starting to get some answers.

Featured image: View on Dakar

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