Stories from Senegal: Wanna Trade Languages?
My Wolof class is killing me, and I essentially make up noises in class when called on. I have absolutely no idea what anything means beyond the top 10 most useful words and phrases I’ve memorized that provide me with A) food B) transportation or C) a laugh, but not much else (besides a snazzy proverb that I drop now and again when I need a win).
I can’t believe how hard it is. Learning a third language in my second language leaves me curled up in a fetal position listening to Hoobastank in my bed every Tuesday night on my iPod.
While being physically present seems to be the only requirement to pass most of my other classes, that is not the case for our Wolof lessons. You see, in this class, you have to actually show that you know some words from this language, either by writing or speaking, and whatever I’m producing is most definitely not Wolof.
I’m not used to being this bad at school, and I’m not taking my low scores well. I have to do something about it.
After a particularly gut-wrenching class where I just listed all the words I knew back-to-back as an answer on a quiz (3/20), I stumbled out into the courtyard, one strap loosely keeping my backpack attached to my body, shuffling my feet toward the exit. I would have made Eeyore proud.
Most of the waitresses at the restaurant are walking out the gate, heading home for the day. Wolof is the only class of mine that starts and ends in the afternoon, and I haven’t caught them all leaving together before.
As I make my way out, I notice one of the women, Anne-Marie, is still gathering her things. I haven’t seen her out of her blue and yellow work uniform before. She looks like a model.
“Salut Kah-tee,” she says, as we fall in line walking out, “Nanga def?”
Even though this is one question I do know how to answer, this simple question in Wolof breaks my spirit in that moment, and I reply in sudden desperation, “Anne-Marie, would you help me with Wolof? I can teach you English if you want, we can…”
Before I can finish, she has spun on her heel, marched right up to me, and stuck out her hand like a president accepting their nomination.
“Oui,” she says, quite formally. I automatically grab her proffered hand, and the shake is firm and official.
Well that was easy, I think. I immediately feel better having done something about my “Wolof problem,” and we fall in step as we make our way through the gate together, talking properly and actually getting to know each other for the first time.
“That was a pretty strong reaction,” I say to her. “What makes you so interested in learning English? Or is my Wolof so bad that this is more like, an intervention so that you all don’t have to listen to me butcher it around you all anymore?”
She laughs, and I immediately feel ten times more relaxed. I swear, it’s not RBF here so much as it is RSF - Resting Serious Face - that makes those of us raised Catholic feel like we’ve done something wrong and are going to have a stomach ache about it until you let us know what we did so we can apologize.
“Well,” she says as we walk, “If I could speak even a little English, I could get a job in a nicer restaurant where you have to speak it here and earn a lot more money. That would completely change my life. I’d be able to take care of my sick mom better, too.”
I look down to my feet and feel something like shame and embarrassment rumbling around in me. I had spontaneously asked about having a language exchange together so I wouldn’t fail a class, but for Anne-Marie, she saw it as an opportunity that could have a big real-world impact for her. The fact that I hadn’t thought about it like this before was yet another example of the many instances in which I realize the privileges I have over and over again. It would be one of the most humbling experiences of my time in Senegal.
“Alors,” I respond, “Then we should get started right away. Do you want to meet after you’re done with work tomorrow? We could just stay at WARC for another hour or so, like 30 minutes of English and then 30 minutes of French. Would that work?”
“Absolutment,” she tells me.