Aside from everything else that I love here, learning Wolof is quite possibly the coolest academic part of this trip. Wolof is the nearly universal African language in Senegal; it's the primary language of the majority of the Dakarois (people who live in Dakar), and apparently people of other tribal origins and in other parts of the country generally still speak or understand Wolof.
On Monday, we had our first official Wolof class. The prof, Sydy/Twiggy/Willow is the most adorable, jolly, interesting, and intelligent wisp of a man. He worked as a Wolof teacher of PeaceCorps volunteers for a long time and has quite the stories to tell from those experiences. We spent the first two days of class learning different greetings, salutations, conversation starters, and information questions (where you live, your names, etc.); I have a feeling that even after spending two class days on them, there are still more greetings to learn. In Senegal, greeting a person and discussing for a few minutes their condition, the condition of their family, their dog, their plants, what have you, is extremely important. Should you choose not to spend the time to properly greet someone and inquire after their health a bit, oftentimes they will simply ignore you. They're not being rude, though. The mentality is that, if you treat me like a tree instead of a person by not greeting me like a person, I will act like a tree and not talk to you.
Now that I know and can use a bit of Wolof, it's fun to greet people as I walk to and from school. As soon as any of us toubabs (white people) pull out the "Salaam Maaleekum" standard greeting of peace, the people we have greeted love to throw back rapid questions in Wolof to see what we know. Generally I just stumble through saying "Maangi fii rekk"and keep moving, but occasionally it's nice to stop and try a few more phrases.
Because of our willingness to greet and the Dakarois love of toubabs, my American neighbor Vera and I have made friends with the guards who work in our quartier. Every day on the way to and from school we exchange niceties, and often they invite us to sit and have ataya (tea) with them. While doing ataya, they like to tease us and teach us things to say in Wolof. Thanks to them, I can now tell people who ask that I have four husbands--this is truly a useful response because anyone and everyone will ask early on in a conversation, "Madame ou mademoiselle?" And by early in a conversation I mean right after names and salutations comes the married or not question. Should I choose to respond by saying that I have four husbands, everyone just laughs and tells me that's too many; or, as happened with one of my guard friends, they tell me in Wolof that they want to be the fifth. By giving such an outrageous response as "am naa niente jeker," I can respond to the question, lighten the mood, make a friend, and ignore giving actual information all at the same time. And that is a very useful cultural skill to learn here.
En fin, the point is that not only is it fascinating to delve into a language so entirely different from my own, but also it allows me to become more a part of this beautiful culture in a way I never could merely as a tourist.
Ba beneen yoon!