Saturday, November 21, 2009

Faux pas and fox paws

Christine likes to show a little tush when she struts her stuff :)

At a restaurant in San last week a man began speaking to me in between  his bites of greasy chicken and rice.  I peeled my attention away from the Switzerland-Nigeria World Cup finalizing match playing on the television to make out what he was saying.  I operate nearly entirely in Bambara which means even English starts to sound foreign. 

"I'm sorry," I say, wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt, "I ko di?" (What did you say?).  I watch his lips form the words again and realize I did not mishear - he indeed said "I am a Christmas." 

Gaffs often occur with a new language.  Embarrassed by the words that feel like marbles rolling around in your mouth it is easy to hold back and shyly abstain from answering questions if you don't know the right word at first.  Or, you can dive in and risk making a fool of yourself!  After my dinner with this man I began to comb my Malian memories for my own comic blunders.    Malians think toubabs are a little off their rockers before you even say hello which makes their quizzical expressions turned belly laughs that much harder to read when I mess up - they laugh at me no matter what I say!  Nonetheless, some laughs are more warranted than others and so I've put together a little montage of some of my favorite faux pas in Mali - enjoy!

The first two months of Peace Corps training in Mali are spent in a home-stay village near Bamako where trainees spend 6 hours a day 6 days a week in technical and language training.  In the evenings we would retreat to our respective host families to practice Bambara in the relative comfort of a family setting and (hopefully!) with patient hosts.  Needless to say your neurons are in overdrive as you learn the structure and idiosyncrasies of a new language while at the same time trying to wrap your head and body around all the cultural and physical adjustments.  As I set out on one of my first trips to the butigi (boutique) in Kabe, my home-stay village, I repeated what my host-mom, Korotime, had instructed me to buy: 'buru, den kelen, buru, den kelen' (bread, one piece) while navigating the inadvertent cornfield maze between our mud compound and the shop in the center of town.  But by the time I reached my destination all concentration has dissipated as women greeted me and kids chanted my new Malian name - Djelika - and I dodged herds of cows and goats returning from grazing.  Once in the store and after greeting the butigi owner I decided to resort to sign language and mumbling - this often gets you at least kind of what you are looking for.  'Boro, den kelen,' I said loudly, as I gestured to a sack stuffed with baguettes by the front door, hoping my higher volume would make up for my faltering pronunciation.  He looked at me and then proceeded to empty all the bread from the sack I was pointing to and hand me the empty bag.  'Malians!' I thought to myself, 'why don't they understand!?'  I repeated my request: 'Boro, den kelen' a little louder this time as I handed back the empty bag.  A look of understanding washed over the owner's face as he took back his bag and handed me a baguette.  He once again held up his empty bag and another baguette and said 'Boro' while lifting the bag and 'Buru' while lifting the bread.  Not picking up on the subtle nuance I told him that's what I said as I took my change and headed home, glad to be done with my errand.  Only later in class as we reviewed food vocabulary was I able to pick up on the not-so-subtle difference between the two words and laugh at myself for the misunderstanding :)

Yawning at my language mistakes :)

Transportation invites miscommunication wherever you are and no matter the language.  As Cassie and I emerged from the fray of the main market in Bamako this past summer I saw one of the pick-up trucks-turned-taxis, flat bed converted into seats by three rows of benches, pulling away and in the direction we needed to go.  'Cass,' I yelled as I juggled my bags and held my purse, 'that's our ride!'  We picked up speed and I yelled after the truck 'An b'a fe ka jigi!  An b'a fe ka jigi!!' making eye-contact with the prend-tigi (moneytaker).  The teenage boy handling the passenger's fare cocked his head to the side and then gave the cab of the truck an assertive thump indicating to the driver the passengers crammed in back were ready to go.  I cried after them once more but to no avail.  'Malians!' I muttered to Cassie as we absorbed back into the crowd to wait for another taxi.  Catching her breath, Cassie wondered aloud, 'doesn't jigi mean to get out of the taxi? I think 'yele' means to get on.'  I thought about it for a minute and then dissolved into giggles thinking if a Malian was in America chasing after a taxi yelling 'I want to get out of the taxi!  I want to get out of the taxi!' and then cursing unfriendly American taxi drivers for passing him by.  Cassie, at this point used to my giggling fits, shook her head and smiled as she pointed out another taxi heading the way we wanted to go.  We heaved our heavy bags onto the bed of the truck and hopped in choosing to communicate with our body language rather than actual words.

Little lollipop princess

Toubab status garners a lot of attention from both women and men - but especially men.  So it was on the defense that I responded to two guys in the first-class lounge on the river barge Cassie and I recently took from Gao to Mopti.  I overheard them say 'Toubabs' and then watched as they, unabashedly, swiveled in their chairs to get a better look and then turn back to their conversation.  'Malian men!' I huffed to Cassie as I turned my attention to the two seated on stools by the bar.  'I be kuma an fe wa?' I asked.  While I was sitting down had I been standing there definitely would have been a hand on my hip.  One of the men turned back around and laughed.  He explained that what I had just said was an invitation to speak with Cassie and I but that surely what I had meant to say was 'I be kuma an kan wa?' (are you talking about us rather than are you talking with us).  I couldn't help but chuckle along with him at my mistake.

Sitting at the restaurant last week, motos zooming by and 18-wheeler trucks blaring their horns, I reflected on my own language snafoos and was reminded  there is always something to learn - a year and a half in and I still make pretty embarrassing errors!  Turning to fully face my new dining companion I gently asked 'Do you mean to say Christian?' eyeing his 'Jesus has risen' print shirt.  He nodded emphatically, 'Yes, Christmas!' and turned back to his dinner.  At least the holiday isn't far around the corner!

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