Bala nga xam, xamadi xaw laa rey.
Wolof saying that means: Before you realize it, your ignorance could kill you.
Here is a snippet of a conversation I had with a colleague before I left for Senegal:
Me: I am so nervous about going to Senegal because I only speak English! I wish I knew more French. I don't want to seem ignorant.
Colleague: Oh, you'll be fine. Almost everyone there speaks English! Don't worry about it!
Do you remember what it felt like to not know how to read or speak? I don't. But I've realized since I've been in Dakar that while I have always considered myself to be a good reader and speaker, I am only literate in one language. This makes me not as good as I thought. In Dakar, I can't read good.
I've met youth here who are half my age and can speak five languages. Most of the people I've met speak at least two languagues. When completing research, I am limited in my resources. The first thing I ask when we walk into a place to conduct an interview is, "Pardon. Parlez-vous l'anglais?" Excuse me. Do you speak English? Guess what the most likely answer is? I'm kind of ignorant in this country and believe me... ignorance is NOT bliss.
People notice my lingual ignornace or as I like to call it, lignorance, and although they are friendly, they can't believe that I don't understand or speak French. One bookstore employee on campus said it well:
Employee (in French): You only speak English?
Employee (in English): What a pity.
It is a pity. When people try to talk to me on the street and I can't answer, I feel pitiful. After the World Cup match last night, people were even yelling in Spanish and I STILL didn't get it.
Now, if you know me, you can anwser this: Do all of these negatives stop me from trying?
I've added about twenty words/phrases from Wolof and French to my vocabulary since I've been here. I've also tried to conquer my lingual illiteracy or as I like to call it, lilliteracy, with body language. Case in point: my daily taxi arguement. Taxis are negotiable in Dakar, and if you take the first price, you are considered a sucker. Here is an example of an arguement I have almost every day with the taxi guys on the corner:
Me: "C'est combien à __________?" (How much to ______)?
Taxi guy: Says something completely unreasonable.
Me: Says something more reasonable.
Taxi guy: Shakes his head with mad look on his face and says the unreasonable price again.
Me: Gives a look over my sunglasses and starts to walk away.
Taxi guy: "No, no, no! D'accord!" (okay). Opens the cab door and gestures.
Me: Holds out money I have proposed. "Oui or no?"
Taxi guy: Sighs and nods head. Slams door after I get in and then drives kind of crazy-like to get back at me.
All you have to do is make sure you have exact change. If you don't, he may unbuckle his pants, dispelling a pocketknife, some other weird tools, and his change. But that's another taxi story for another day.
The lesson in all of this, my faithful friends? Learn another language if you don't know one already. It will open doors for you. It will help you find a bathroom. It will ensure that you make more friends in the places you visit. It will allow you to know what people are saying about you when you walk into a room. It might even get you a lower cab fare. ;)
Love and peace,
Jen, who is signing up for a language class as soon as she gets home and will be able to speak and read that language within the year. Guaranteed.