Language matters

The more time I spend here at the hospital, the more I realize that I need to learn one of the local languages if I am going to really connect with people. Most of the patients and their families that come in speak at least a little French, but when they talk to each other they usually use either Djerma or Hausa. The question is, which language should I pick?

Ideally it would be great to learn both, since they are both so commonly spoken, but that might be a little overly ambitious, even though everyone keeps assuring me that I could learn both in no time (easy for them to say, it is not uncommon for people here to speak five or six languages). From what I can tell, Djerma is the most widely used language here in Niamey, but Hausa is used all over the country and by many more people. I am kind of leaning towards Hausa for a number of reasons, first of all because it seems like almost everyone speaks it, even people who also speak Djerma, and second of all because I have discovered that I already know a few words in Hausa. They have quite a few words that are borrowed from Arabic, so I have started a list of the Hausa words/phrases I already know:

  1. Allah – “God”
  2. Issa – “Jesus”
  3. Saalam – “peace”
  4. Hakika – “Truth”
  5. Masar – “Egypt”
  6. Urdun – “Jordan”
  7. Inshallah – “God willing”
  8. Al humdulila – “Praise God”

Believe me, I am under no illusions. Is this kind of like cheating? Yes. Can I really say I have learned these words? No. Do I think it is totally sweet that I already know some words in Hausa? Absolutely.

Another reason I think I will probably choose Hausa is that I have already heard several awesome Hausa proverbs. They do tend to be a bit cryptic, but I see that as part of the charm, and sometimes they are so incredibly apt. Its like little nuggets of wisdom strewn about, waiting for someone to pick them up. Naturally, I have started compiling a list. Here are some examples:

“The bird builds his nest one branch at a time.” (In reference to the speed at which Julie will learn French).

“The man who is drowning will not turn away the spear you hold out to him.” (In response to the question of whether or not someone will ask for prayer from a person who is of a different religion).

I’m not totally sure about the meaning of that last one – is the prayer a spear? If so, yikes. But it kind of reminded me of the story of Jonah. Everyone pray to your own god, eventually something will work. When you see the situation people live in here, you can understand that mentality. It is also an indication, I think, of the general tolerance people seem to have for each other here, and that is a good thing in any language.

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11 Responses to Language matters

  1. “E-now quana” = good morning or hello in Hausa.

  2. Sounds like you are off to a great start. No it’s not cheating that you already know some words =) If that was the case then I learned Hebrew by cheating too! Is Josh going to learn Hausa too?

    • Josh has already learned quite a bit of Hausa! He keeps telling me all the words and phrases he’s learned. You need to bring Rafi here… he would pick up Hausa and Djerma in a couple of days.. no big deal!

  3. Jordash says:

    Hey guys. Been enjoying your blog posts. My vote is for Djerma, because the name sounds cool-er. 🙂 Peace yo.

  4. Sarah Owen, mother of Melody, Saliima, and Yasmiin from the Old City says:

    God bless your efforts in language learning! I’m glad you are learning some Arabic words that are used in Hausa! Sarah Owen

  5. Danny Kopp says:

    Yeah, the other thing about Jonah is the guys on the sinking ship cast lots (very pagan-like remedy; reminds me of the gris gris you mention in a later post) in order to determine what to do with him – and receive an answer that is miraculously both correct and life saving! This of course then leads to further conversation with the protagonist himself who, ironically, must both be heeded about this “fearing the Lord” business and summarily be thrown overboard. But it works; like your cheating with Arabic and use of the spear maybe…

  6. Danny Kopp says:

    Sorry, that last one was me writing on Eva’s computer. Didn’t want to leave anyone with the impression that Eva was interested in syncretistic religious expression – I assure you, she is a strict homogeneous fundamentalist!

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