Sunday, June 11, 2006

Part III: At Last, the Long-awaited Final Installment of AHOTFL:AIKAFI

It’s taken me a while to get to this for various reasons. For example, I have been to two parties this week and one concert. I have made a birthday cake in the form of a pink fairy-tale castle. I have searched five different marketplaces for a polka-dotted shirt for JP - only 800cfa!
Also, there was the fire.
So, I have been distracted.

VIII. Culture Shock vs Fatal Culture Electrocution
I wasn’t too worried about moving to Burkina. I spoke the language. Right. As we got off the plane, the air hit me like a hot, damp towel. We lined up with all the other moist, miserable people waiting to get into the terminal building. I was holding Alexa- still asleep, but already showing signs of the heat rash that would plague her for the first years here. JP was holding Mallory and trying to convince three year old Severin not to lay down in the red dirt for a rest. JP and I were both also juggling enormous carry-ons full of baby-gear and feeling destroyed after the all-night flight with four small children in tow. It was 4am. In the terminal, all the voices seemed blurred into an incomprehensible mass. As soon as I reached the customs desk, I realized that it was not an illusion- I really couldn’t understand but a fraction of what was said to me! Oh no! Maybe the oxygen supply on the plane had been compromised and I had brain damage. But no, it was just that my hard-won French was virtually useless. I had to start learning to speak “Burkinabé”. It’s not just an accent, but also a whole host of words and expressions. Add to that a whole new culture and the possibilities for confusion are endless.

IX. A Few Examples
It took a few weeks to sort out the accent, but much longer to catch on to the vocabulary.
A “maquis” in French is the wilderness areas in the south of France where the Resistance hid . But in Burkina, people go to the maquis every weekend. It means a small bar where you can knock back a few “Flagettes” (small local beers).

People often “chosiner” here. It is a verb verb: “to thingy”.
“I’m going to go thingy. Is that ok?” Sure, what ever. You go and “thing” all you like. It is a funny, all purpose verb that means “to do something”.

When someone told me: "Ma moteur est gaté”, I thought, hmmm…his motor is spoiled. “Gaté” is the word the French used for turned milk and badly-behaved children. Spoiled… Did he leave his motor in the sun too long? Did he give it candy whenever it cried?
No--his motorbike was broken.

And watch out if someone says “ça va un peu”. (It goes a little) Actually it means that it everything is going very badly indeed.

X. Bat Salad
We moved into a house in a relatively shady, calm neighborhood It came equipped with a locally made swing-set, a small swimming pool and one cheerful, elderly guardian called Salif. Salif had worked as a guardian at the house for many years, but somehow never picked up much French. And I was struggling so hard with the Burkinabé French, that I was not learning Mooré at all. But Salif was very friendly, always doing his best to communicate with me and showing me interesting things. One day, it was a bat. A dead bat he had found in the garden.
“It is a bald-mouse?” I ventured. “Bat” is “chauve souris” in French. I knew what I was saying, but nobody seemed to understand my American-accented French very well, so I was taking it slow.
“Yes, it is bat” responded Salif. “It is good. I like it !”
He waited, looking at me expectantly.
“Good?” Well, ok. “Yes. They eat insects, don’t they?” I said, trying to keep up my end of this somewhat mystifying conversation.
He gave me a quizzical look. And launched into a positive torrent of French. “I can have bat? I like bat. All Burkina eat bat. Many bats in salad. Very good. I can have?
My mind raced. He eats bats? Bats in a SALAD?? With Ranch dressing, or just a light vinaigrette? Or is it bat salad sandwiches? No. No. No. I must have misunderstood.
“Salfo, I’m sorry. I don’t understand. You like to eat bats? Bats in salad?”
He started to laugh uproariously.
Oh good, so they don’t eat bats.
He stopped laughing long enough to say “ No! No! Bat not good in salad!!! Soup! Soup! Bat soup very good!. I can have?”
I hastened to assure him that I am not that greedy kind of person that selfishly claims every bat that falls in her yard. No, I selflessly give away every dead bat on my property. That’s just the kind of generous, saint-like person that I am.

XI. The Long Hello
The most important thing is to greet people correctly. The workhorse of this exchange is "Ca va" (It goes) You just change the inflection and you have both the question and the answer: "It goes?" "It goes."
But it doesn't stop there. Oh no. Once you have established that it is going for you personally, THEN you figure out how it goes for the spouse and offspring. The extended family. The folks back in the village. At work. No aspect of life escapes.
and don't be impatient. You have to keep going at this until the ça va's naturally die down and everyone agrees implicitly that you can get down to business. But don't get impatient and try any short-cuts.
And also, as I indicated above , if "ça va un peu" ( It goes a little), someting mega-bad is going on. I didn't catch that nuance at first. I thought that when things were going a little, that was pretty much business as usual. But it really means that little Abibou has brain cancer and their donkey has been hit by a car and you are missing MAJOR social cues if you don't ask why "ça va un peu".

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