Service in PEACE CORPS is an unforgettable experience. Working in and getting to know a side of the world that Americans rarely hear about, except when there is a natural or political disaster, changes one's view of humanity. I had the pleasure of serving as an instructor of English at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS or Teacher Training School) d'Abidjan. West Africa is one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the world, yet the one-on-one contacts we make while living abroad gives a sense of the oneness of humankind and the pleasure of meeting those whose lives are so different from our own. Some of the more memorable people I got to know were the bus driver, the gardien at the bookstore, the market ladies, as well as my own students at the ENS.
One of the requirements of Peace Corps is to acquire a working knowledge of a local language. As there are some sixty (60) languages and dialects spoken in la République de Côte d'Ivoire (RCI), choosing one might appear to be a difficult proposition. The official language of RCI is French, la langue administrative, which serves as the glue that unifies the country. The difference between a language and a dialect is still one on which few linguists can agree, but a noted psycholinguist from MIT, during an interview with Dr. Milt Rosenberg on Chicago radio station WGN's late lamented Extension 720, put it very well when he observed that "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy."
In any case, Peace Corps volunteers in la République de Côte d'Ivoire (RCI) studied a language according to their prior language ability: A trainee (un stagiaire) with no French background would be placed in elementary French (a difficult situation to be in, as everything official is conducted in French in RCI); trainees with some French were placed in an intermediate-level class; those, like myself, with high-level French were placed in a class studying West African literature such as Les bouts de bois de Dieu (God's little pieces of wood) by Cheikh Hamadou Kane, Coups de pilon (pilon is the object a woman uses to grind manioc or plantain; the title evokes the sound of the club-shaped mortar as it does its work) by David Diop, Le monde s'effondre (Things fall apart) by Chinua Achebe, and so on.
In addition, we were placed in a very enjoyable class in Dioula (called Jula in English - if you recall Alex Haley's book Roots, the major character, Kunta Kinte, spoke Jula). Dioula is not only a language spoken by a great number of people, it is also a market language, or langue véhiculaire. Most West Africans speak two or three languages! Example: my students at the ENS were quite proficient in English, plus they spoke French, Dioula, and the language of their home region, such as Bété, Agni, Baoulé, and so on. As we progressed in Dioula, it became very enjoyable to use the language "in the street" at the market, on the bus. Some very important every-day expressions to use are I ni baara, thanking someone for his/her work; I ka kènè? asking about someone's health; I ni chè, thanks. A conversation in Dioula and more stories.
Having the opportunity to travel and learn about various places in West Africa results in finding places with interesting names, like Ouagadougou (pronounced "Wagadugu"), the capital of Burkina Faso. It turns out that dougou (dugu) means town, and Ouaga is the name of a people; the name of the city is thus like a Charleston (Charles-town). The Dioula word for chief is tigi. Question: what does dugutigi mean? Who is the dugutigi of New York City? Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The word for money in Dioula is wari. I happened to work as the treasurer for a summer program. What was my job called in Dioula? Waritigi.
Every region of the world has its local customs, of which the visitor is not at first aware. Intent on buying locally-made souvenirs, it became apparent that the seller expected the interested person to barter (marchander). One can get quite good at this with a bit of practice! A sticky situation, expecially in the back country, is that I am left-handed. Recall that the Latin word for left is sinister... Upon eating dinner en famille, my hostess let me know in no uncertain terms with a slap on the wrist and a smile that reaching into a serving bowl with my left hand was not acceptable.
Note that even in French and Spanish, the word for left is not of Latin origin, but right is. Gauche. Izquierda. Droite. Derecha. And we have such expressions as a left-handed compliment.
A few travel and life experiences which I enjoy recalling are...
Traveling by bus from Abidjan to a small town just inside Liberia, in the iron-rich area around Mount Nimba. Upon arriving at the frontier (a small river), the customs agent pointed out that I should have had my passport stamped at the last town through which I had passed, twenty some kilometers back - and only one last bus would make the trip that particular evening. As the bus finally headed for Danané, a young African asked me en français if I were French. I indicated my nationality, whereupon he brightened up and began speaking to me in English. Where was I going? À Danané. Where was I going to stay that evening? Je n'avais aucune idée. Well, in that case, I was welcome to stay at his brother's home (I enjoyed their hospitality for two days, it turned out). Needless to say, I had a wonderful time! Anyone who has traveled over long distances in far-off lands has this happen at one time or another. Ordinary people are really pretty nice to one another. Of course, the fact that he was studying English in Liberia, and happened to bump into a native English speaker didn't hurt.
During a Christmas vacation trip to Togo, two small countries to the east of RCI, my two French companions were sharing a taxi-brousse (bush taxi, public inter-city transportation, at that time usually a Peugeot 504 station wagon) with a few Togolais going from Lomé, the capital, to Kpalimé, a town noted for its beautiful hand-woven cloth. It is not unusual for there to be a police check-point barrier outside of each large town along the road, but in this case, the inspection was particularly thorough, as there had been very recently a threat on the Togolese president's life. The policeman went through my North Face backpack, and found a sheaf of photocopies... of the pages referring to Lomé and Togolese hotels and entertainment in Susan Blumenthal's excellent book (1974) Bright Continent. Not proficient in English, the policeman immediately found me suspect, and proceeded to direct the taxi-brousse and its passengers to the Commissariat (police station). The police chief, sitting on the porch, upon being shown the evidence, beckoned me to come up from the car. Thoughts raced through my mind of being never heard from again... I was asked why I was in Togo, whereupon I explained that "my friends who had been [there] suggested visiting it, since it was so friendly and had such great hand-made crafts." Upon being faced with my "suspect documents", I pointed out on various pages the key words hotel, cinema, discothèque and so on. My Peace Corps identity card was the real zinger - the police chief mentioned with a smile that he had known some of the PC volunteers in Kpalimé, and indicated a good hotel down the street. Whew. Tout est bien qui finit bien.Terry, a volunteer who taught at the University, and I took the same city bus to work three days a week. We both enjoyed studying and speaking dioula, which other regular Ivorian passengers noticed. They asked at first if we were French, since we were obviously not African. We explained that we were American volunteers teaching in Ivory Coast and learning about the people and the culture. They asked if we were wealthy... Note here that if you are French in Ivory Coast you're either (1) doing military service, (2) a businessman or (3) a tourist. The latter two are usually quite well to do. So I said in dioula Wari t'en fe, "I haven't any money." "If you say it that way you're talking like a book. Say Wari t'en kun, 'I'm broke.' Now you're talking like a local!" A few weeks later, at a regular stop, a very well dressed African got on the bus. There were no empty seats. Looking around, he saw Terry and me, and began to chew us out for taking the bus, since we were wealthy tubabus who could afford a car. After he finished his tirade, I exclaimed Wari t'en kun! He stared at us, and then everyone in the bus exploded with laughter. We were confirmed part of the community.
Click here for a Map of West Africa
Click here for a very old Map of West Africa
Des Volontaires en voyage dans un petit car Mercédès "22 places". Ce dessin humoristique a été la création d'un volontaire en Côte d'Ivoire, Mike Reagan. On se déplaçait exactement comme le faisaient nos hôtes si chaleureux les Ivoiriens, les Burkinabés, les Maliens, les Ghanéens.. je pense que vous comprenez. Sachez qu'on faisait tout cela parce qu'on voulait le faire, pas du tout parce qu'on devait le faire.
Volunteer travel, African style. It really is quite enjoyable! Note the occasional unusual passengers in certain conveyances. Drawing done by a PCV from Texas.
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Un des masques que j'ai ramenés de l'Afrique. Les masques sont fabriqués par des artisans du village. Un vrai masque, porté par des danseurs dans des cérémonies véritables coûterait "les yeux de la tête", pour en dire le moins.
One of the masks I brought home from Africa.
Ashanti dolls from Ghana. They are beautiful little animist fetish objects which a woman expecting a child would wear under her clothes in the small of her back. The childlike fetish head will, it is hoped, bring good health and beauty to the child yet unborn.