A short conversation in Dioula
(dioula, jula, joola), a language spoken in Côte d'Ivoire and many of its neighboring countries. Mamadou is a man, speaking with his feminine neighbor, Awa, as they pass in the street. A normal every-day conversation, but there are a number of undercurrents to this conversation that have few equivalents in our own culture.

Note that the letter "g" is pronounced as one would pronounce the letter "j", in Spanish (like "jota"), or the first sound of the Russian word for "good", (kharasho), a sort of glottal clearing of the throat. Use the French pronunciation of these letters to get the best sound. (so I is pronounced EE). After the conversation, a little explication. "H" is pronounced like the "h" in "him".

Mamadou: I ni sogoma! (Good morning!)(Bonjour!)

Awa: N'sé. Hèrè sirawa? (Hmm. Did you sleep well?)(Tu as passé une nuit paisible?)

M: Hèrè dron. I ka kènè wa? (Very well. How are you?)(Très calme. Comment ça va?)

A: N'ka kènè dooni, dooni. Ilé don? (Not bad, and you?)(Comme ci, comme ça. Et toi?)

M: N'ka kènè kosobè! I bè taa min? (I'm fantastic. Where are you going?)(Ça va très bien. Où vas-tu?)

A: N'be taa logofela. I ni baara! (I'm going to market. Keep up the good work!)(Je vais au marché. Merci pour ton bon travail.)

M: I ni chè. An bè sini. (Thanks. See you tomorrow.)(Merci. A demain.)

A: An bè sini. So mogo fo! (See you tomorrow. Say hi to the family.)(See you tomorrow. Salue la famille pour moi.)

A bana. (That's all)(C'est tout.)

Time for a little linguistic detective work, if you're still with me...

Mamadou: I ni sogoma! "I" means you. "ni" = and. "sogoma" = morning. A very poetic way to greet someone. At noon it's "I ni tilé", in the evening "i ni wula".

Awa: N'sé. Hèrè sirawa? "N'sé". = a feminine sound of recognition, like "hmm" in English. If you are a man, you would NOT say "n'sé", but rather "n'ba". "Hèrè" = peacefully, in tranquillity. The particle "si" is the verb sleep. "ra" indicates the past tense and "wa" has exactly the same meaning as the French est-ce que, that is - it indicates a QUESTION (and it can be left off in informal chats).

Note below that "n'sé" and "n'ba" are ONE SYLLABLE WORDS.

PRONUNCIATION NOTE: English and French have words that end with sounds like "ng" - like "parking". We have words that have "ng" in the medial (middle) position, like "kingdom", but NO words that have "ng" at the beginning, like the African name N'guessan. Try saying "Parkinguessan" then remove the "parki" element, and your pronunciation will be of N'Guessan will be perfect. Same for "N'sé" and "N'ba".

M: Here dron. I ka kènè wa? "Hèrè" (see above); "dron" = only. Note that Hèrè dron" is an invariable formula, sort of on the level of Fine, thanks which we say, but don't always mean. Even if you're sick, you'll still answer Hèrè dron. I once answered Hèrè te and got the most shocked look on the face of my African friend.
"I" (see above); "ka" is sort of like the verb have; "kènè" = health. "wa" see above! "Do you have (good) health?"

A: N'ka kènè dooni, dooni. Ilé don? Here's your chance to play the role of an enthnolinguist. You listen to conversations in a language you don't understand, but you begin to notice PATTERNS. You hear "I ka kènè? and you hear "n'ka kènè" as the answer. You know that "I" means YOU. Hmmm, what could "n" possibly mean?? (It means "I" (je, yo, ich, ya, anee, wo - in a few other tongues). "ka kènè" we know from before. "dooni dooni" (the "oo" is a drawn-out sound like that of the vowel in "gone"). "Dooni" = a little. Remember to repeat the sound, like in so many other languages ­ comme ci, comme ça, así así, so so. If asked ¿Cómo estás? You would not answer with just así. In French, you would not answer Ça va? with Comme ci. The repetition is obligatory.

And just as a language learner is always referring back to his/her own mother tongue for a reference when working with the target language, and consequently says things on occasion in an unusual way... Let an anecdote illustrate my point. Each Peace Corps volunter is encouraged to hire someone who would otherwise have no gainful employment. In my case it was Hamadou, who had been hired by a number of PCVs because of his good work and honesty. He spoke Dioula, but just a little French. When one day I asked him Ça va? he answered Un peu, un peu. Which is perfect Dioula - Dooni, dooni.

M: N'ka kènè kosobè! I bè taa min? "N" we know from before, same with "ka kènè". "kosobè" = just fine. "I" we know. "bè" is a particle indicated "presently"; "taa" = go (so "bè taa" would be are going). "Min" = where.

PRONUNCIATION NOTE: just as there are 3 nasal sounds in French (remember when there were FOUR? They could be heard in the phrase UN BON VIN BLANC, but the sound "un" is being replaced (in certain regions of France, notably Paris) by the sound "in", so that lundi now sounds more like lindi). But we digress. In Dioula there are FIVE nasal sounds, those above PLUS "in" and "un" (eeenh and oooonh).

A: N'be taa logofela. I ni baara! We figured out what "n" means, as well as "be taa". "Logofela" is market. "I ni" we saw in "I ni sogoma", way back at the beginning of this conversation. "baara" = work. Now, I ni baara is a VERY nice thing to say to someone. I was visiting Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and while walking down a main street with a Japanese travel companion, noticed some workers repairing a street. Upon my saying A ni baara* I got a couple of loud N'ba!... and then the two fellows turned around and began to laugh till their sides hurt. Turns out that A ni baara was the LAST thing these guys expected to hear from a blanc and an asiatique. They asked where I was from (I bora min?) and how long I had been in Africa. When I said N'bora Abidjanla and said "one year" there were looks of astonishment. It turns out that the average blanc doesn't try to speak the local language - French will suffice. But what doors a language can open! [*Note: a is the plural form of I, since two people were being addressed.]

On the same note, try walking down the streets of, say, Chicago, look for someone working on a street repair, walk up to him and say Keep up the good work! And then watch for the finger and a couple of other nasty things.... Just not the same message, when in a different culture.

M: I ni chè. An bè sini. "I ni" we've seen. "chè" = man, but the expression I ni chè means "thank you". "An" = we; "bè" = particle of presence; "sini" = tomorrow.

A: An bè sini. So mogo fo! "An bè sini" we know. "so" = home, hearth. "mogo" = people (pronounce the "g" in mogo like the "g" in sogoma, above). "fo" = greet, pass my salutations.


During my tenure as an English instructor at the Teacher Training College, another volunteer and I would take the same city bus each day to school. Most of the other passengers knew Terry and me, as we always tried to speak together and to others in dioula, but once in a while another African would get on, notice us non-Africans and try to make fun of us - Pourquoi tu ne prends pas un taxi?! How come you're not taking a cab? Why would we, assumed to be wealthy European businessmen, want to be in this crowded bus? Upon hearing this kind of insult, the busload of people fell silent, everyone waiting for our answer. At the beginning of our stay in Abidjan we answered in very correct Dioula Wari te'n fe = I don't have any money (which was pretty true - a PCV gets a monthly allowance for food, travel, lodging, clothing. Mine in 1977 was $300 a month). Our Ivoirien friends who saw that we were really interested in speaking like a local taught us to say Wari te'n kun = "I have no money on my head", or more exactly, I'm broke. Once we began to answer in local slang, everyone in the bus roared with laughter, leaving our confused tormentor quite embarrassed!!

Being in a culture different from our own...

You may have seen an episode (from many years ago) of Third Rock from the Sun. What makes it so funny? To get another very funny view of being dropped into a completely foreign culture, you might see the subtitled French film Les Visiteurs. The second version (somewhat less successful than the first) was filmed in Chicago, starring the same actors, Jean Reno and Christophe Clavier. (Jean Reno played the part of the hit-man in The Professional, en français, Léon). In Les Visiteurs two men, a knight and his vassal from the time of the Crusades time-travel (with the help of a sorcerer) to 1995. They attack a car, thinking it some kind of monster. The vassal, looking for a torch, rips light fixture after light fixture off the wall, amazed that each is extinguished... as its electric cord is torn from the wall.

Going into Peace Corps is an experience that takes a bit of courage and willingness to explore another culture. Believe it or not, the hardest part of Peace Corps is coming back to the United States. Our culture, much of it based on personal wealth, is very different from that in most other countries in the world. After two years of working with people who have very little in the way of grand possessions -- the mud brick house that was built in stages over many years, the little plot of land carefully tended to give its little yield of corn, millet, igname, rice, the tattered clothing, the wood that is becoming so hard to find because of the clearing of land -- there is shock (and guilt) at what we throw away.

We all trust that beautiful Côte d'Ivoire finds peace once more, ending the violent strife that has torn the country apart. Each returned volunteer from RCI remembers wonderful people - and we can only hope that the country's problems have spared them. I am still looking for traces of the Gonson family from Danané, Ivory Coast.


Know a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV)? Every one of them has great stories to tell.

Your reporter taught French (and occasionally Spanish and biology) for several decades at the secondary and community-college levels. At the beginning of his career, he met a textbook author who planted the idea that while being a teacher, being a student is a very refreshing undertaking. Since that time, he has studied eight languages, beginning with his native tongue, English, followed by French, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Russian, Dioula, and currently Mandarin Chinese, zhongwen. He served for several years as well as a contract Escort/Interpreter for the Department of State, accompanying French-speaking guests, principally from North and West Africa during their month-long visits to the United States. In his work as a tour guide at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, he has found being able to use these languages very entertaining, both for himself and for his guests from many places around the world.

Click here for more information on Peace Corps.