Practicing a New Language

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Mary (Mariama) studying Mankinda


From: Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps

Although it was supposed to be the rainy season, it didn’t last. We’d had a few “frog stranglers” as Bruce called them, but not nearly enough to get many of the local crops toward healthy growth.

After work one afternoon, as I made my way home I came across a man, also walking toward his village. We exchanged greetings and walked together.

The dirt path wound through a field of thin, withering millet. Although this staple grain towered above our heads, it wouldn’t produce much this year.

“This field is dry,” I commented in Mandinka. My walking companion nodded, his black face glistening with sweat. “Yes, we need more rain.”

Although the nights had been cool, daytime temperatures were again climbing. I tried not to think about the heat, now soaring close to 100 degrees. My dress stuck to my back, the long skirt caught at my legs. “It’s too bad we can’t get … water …” I groped for the correct word.

He prompted the Mandinka word for irrigation. “It is too far from the river to irrigate, Mariama.”

We stopped at a snake’s twisting track, its thick impression in the sandy soil still fresh. The Gambian held out his arm, holding me back until he determined we were out of harm’s way.

We resumed our trek. The trail narrowed and I automatically stepped behind my companion. “Couldn’t water from the river be piped in?”

“But how? Irrigation systems need motors and fuel and they are expensive.”

We reached a fork in the footpath. From the village to the right, pungent smoke from cooking fires greeted us. Voices and laughter drifted from behind woven fences.

My new friend gestured to the right. “I will go this way now.”

“Yes. Thank you for walking with me.”

“Mariama,” he called over his shoulder. “Your Mandinka is very good.”

Highly complimented, it was only then I realized my entire conversation had been in Mandinka; his had been in English. Without my realizing it, we had been practicing each other’s language.