What’s in a Language?

Everyone gets along in Senegal. Christians, Muslims, Animists, they all live peacefully with one another. Christians celebrate Tabaski and Muslims give gifts at Christmas. Although French is the official language, Wolof is spoken by a large majority of people. These are some of the broad statements that summed up our initial introduction to Senegal during the first week of the program. These ideas are frequently reinforced in real life, from schoolchildren celebrating Mardi Gras in head-to-toe costumes and the news read every night in an effortless blend of Wolof and French. Nevertheless, I’ve found time and time again that here in Senegal just as much as in any other society with its own cultural nuances and peculiarities, you should never take things at face value.

With the background information we were given in countless orientation sessions, information packets and blogs written by students who have “been there, done that”, we were constantly assured that there is no tension at all between Senegal’s numerous ethnic groups and faith traditions. Being from a country that also boasts of its peaceful religious landscape and ethnic harmony, I was starting to wonder if there was more to the story.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s not as though I found this narrative of peace and unity too good to be true. However, I did note that quite a few of the people I had spoken to who praised the pluralism existing in Senegal belonged to the statistical majority, both religious and ethnic. Of course other ethnic groups besides Wolof are often mentioned but usually in passing, “We also have the “Hal-Pulaar, Serere…” before the statement circles back to emphasize how united people are. Fortunately for me, I have the great opportunity to get the minority perspective from the comfort of my homestay.

As I may have probably mentioned in previous posts, my family situation is rather unique in comparison to some of the other students in the program.  My host-mother, Soso (Josephine) is a Catholic, Jola from the Casamance, unmarried and living in a cute house with her sometimes housemate, Mama Cato who spends most of the year in her home in France. Soso checks so many unconventional boxes as a result of her marital status, religion and belonging to an ethnic minority. The combination of languages spoken at home is beautiful, although 99.9% of it floats above my head and into the stratosphere. She speaks Kriol with Mama Cato, a mix of Portuguese and local languages that took me completely by surprise the first time I heard it. Mama Cato will often greet me with a hearty “Bonjour” but Soso with “Bon día” and I love it! I’ve been trying to pick up on it as much as I can but I fear that at this point the only words that stick out to me are the ones that are close enough to the two semesters of Spanish I took during my freshman year at Georgetown. Soso’s Wolof seemed to have a certain accent to it in comparison to other speakers I had heard, and although it was no clearer to me than her rapid-fire Kriol, I was tipped off to the fact that she isn’t a native speaker of the language.

The insight I was looking for came unexpectedly one night when I was talking to Mama Cato about a conversation I had with a frustrated man who couldn’t understand why I didn’t speak Wolof, seeing as he didn’t speak much French and was finding it difficult to communicate with me. With her very unique Mama Cato cackle, she said, “Do they think Wolof is an international language? If he can’t speak French it’s too bad!” They. In the midst of the nationalism and unity there was still an “us” and “them” dichotomy. This in itself wasn’t a surprising discovery, because it has been demonstrated time and time again that as human beings we are prone to make another group the “other” in our attempts to reinforce our own group identity and distinguish ourselves from those “others”.

What actually surprised me was the number of people I spoke to who either expressed similar sentiments or knew someone who held these beliefs. One man apparently refused to speak Wolof opting instead to use the official language,French, because as far as he was concerned that was better than giving up his own native tongue totally to Wolof. Yet again, another small anecdotal act of defiance hinted at a minority’s desire to affirm its own identity in the face of a dominant and ever-present majority.  I have encountered a few other instances of people expressing similar determination to maintain their own ethnic identity as tied up as it is with the use of one’s own language, and yet I’m left with many more questions.

According to my Anthropology professor at CIEE, the Wolof have been stereotyped by other groups as being aggressive, untrustworthy and overbearing. He suggested that this mistrust stems from the resentment felt by other groups in light of Wolof dominance in Senegal beginning with the fact that they had the first contact with Europeans upon their arrival on Senegal’s shores. Could it be possible that this tension arises from the post-colonial need to reinforce a national identity? A local language that unifies as many people as possible may be a reflex reaction to the oppression and cultural destruction meted out by colonial powers. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that students were not permitted to speak Wolof and other local languages in schools under the French education system.

In various classes on Francophone Africa I took at Georgetown, I read texts written by different prominent African intellectuals including Leopold Senghor and Amadou Hampathé Ba who emphasized the importance of developing African languages in order to reinforce one’s identity and teach the younger generation the value of their culture. They seemed to imply that Africans ought to place aside ethnic divisions and seek a broader national unity, even if this unity is bound together by a language that is not one’s own. Is this a worthy sacrifice? I’ve been taught and have seen the evidence of “Wolofisation”, the expansion of Wolof culture and language. While creating an accessible lingua franca for a vast majority of people with very little knowledge of French due to a lack of access to formal education, could this process be giving birth to a generation of young people who are only distant acquaintances of their own ethnicity and culture?

The way I see it, language is inextricably linked to one’s self-perception. Even the most basic everyday phrase can tell you a lot about one’s beliefs, priorities and worldview.  The importance of family ties and lineage is apparent in the phrase “Noo sant?”  meaning “What is your last name?” The word “sant” translates into English as “praise”, indicating that a last name is more than a simple moniker designating who one’s parents are; it serves as a way to elevate and recognize the status of another human being in the context of the family and community they are from.

What about the exclusion of those in various regions who speak little to no Wolof instead maintaining their own maternal tongue? I wonder how much of my confusion on this topic stems from my own position as a member of an ethnic group which is not necessarily a minority in Ghana, but whose language is neither par for the course as Wolof is in many parts of Senegal. In any case, after spending four months studying here, I doubt I will be any closer to finding answers to all my questions than I was when I first arrived. What’s in a language? Just some food for thought!


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