Fatick, Senegal – January 2010
Growing up in central Illinois, there was really no reason to learn any foreign language. High school required it, however, so I took Spanish. Naturally the only place I’ve lived overseas predominantly spoke French, the other option I didn’t choose. When I arrived in Senegal, I found that the other six members of my team spoke French fluently. Since my self-worth is entirely dependent upon my ranking as compared to others…I was not feeling so confident. No one had to know that, though, so off to my first French lesson I went!
I shared a pink house with Liz, and one bright Monday morning (all days are bright in Senegal in January) I opened the gate to our compound and walked down our sand road by myself. “Turn right,” I muttered to myself. This led me to a paved road with only a light dusting of sand. Piles of poop were to be avoided, as were the wandering herds of sheep and goats that made them. Looking back, it is ludicrous how nervous I was about getting lost. Madame Ndour’s house was at the end of the road. There was only one direction to turn (right), and her compound was the first on the right. The whole walk took maybe five minutes, and that includes slogging through sand in Chacos and a long skirt.
I knocked on the open gate. “Um, hello? Bonjour?” I thought I might impress her with the one French word I was confident using. No one was around. Clotheslines hung between houses, and chickens darted underneath them. A little kid with a snot-bubbled nose peered at me from around one building. “Hi?” I asked. I wandered into the courtyard, ducking under brightly patterned fabric.
A woman was seated at a large bowl, sifting rice. She immediately got up when she saw me, smiled, and shook my hand with both of hers. She spoke rapidly and indecipherably, but I followed her into one of the small buildings. She sat me on a couch and left me in the dark. The lights were off and heavy metal shutters blocked the sun from entering through the windows. I could vaguely see the outline of shelves and another couch to one side. I waited.
Twenty minutes later I was still waiting, sitting awkwardly in the empty room. I shifted occasionally and had resorted to coughing a few times, but the noises of human activity remained elsewhere. I stood. Sat. I didn’t know what to say to anyone, and I didn’t know how to understand their explanation anyway.
Finally, a second woman walked heavily into the room and flipped a light switch. She looked startled to see me sitting calmly in the dark, so I stood and shook her hand. “I’m Tricia,” I said. She tsked at me. “I’m Siga,” I tried again. In Fatick, foreigners are given a Senegalese name. A girl named Siga had been the first person I met, and she gleefully named me after herself.
I stared at her. After my name, everything was gibberish. I smiled.
“Assis toi,” she said, sitting.
She stood back up, walked me to the couch, and pushed me down. Lowering her hand, she said, “Assis toi. Léve toi.”
I smiled. She dragged me to my feet. “Assis toi.” I sat. She beamed and clapped her hands. I beamed and hoped this was the whole lesson.
But no. For two hours, she made me memorize the sentence, “A onze heures je m’eu vais au marche pour acheter des oeufs, du lait et des fruits.”
Thoroughly exhausted, I trudged home. Liz was in the kitchen with earbuds in, dancing while she bleached apples and made eggs on the gas stove. She stopped her iPod when she saw me.
“A onze heures je m’eu vais au marche pour acheter des oeufs, du lait et des fruits,” I told her.
“Heeeey!” Liz cried. She gave me a high five. “You’re speaking French!”
“Yeah, but,” I whimpered. “What did I say? I have no idea what I just learned.”
“Say it again?” Liz asked. I stumbled through the sentence. “You told me that at 11:00 you’re going to the market to buy eggs, milk, and fruit.”
“That’s what you said.”
“I spent two hours learning that?” I was outraged. I thought I’d learned something poetic, something life-shattering, something I could at least use in greeting people. I collapsed at our dining room table. “Is this how people learn languages?” I moaned.
“Sure,” she said confidently. Like someone who was already fluent in French.