I’ve been trying to sneak a few Wolof phrases into other posts, but I thought it was time all of you had a crash course in Wolof, the main local language for both Senegal and The Gambia. The first thing to know is that greetings are very important in Gambian culture. I often joke with people here that in the States, sometimes we put our headphones in, look down at our phone, and pretend not to see people we know so we don’t have to greet them. Here is the exact opposite. While my walk to the clinic or to the school should take me 10 minutes, it usually takes half an hour or maybe an hour. This is because every person you pass, every compound you pass, you greet and chat with for at least a minute. It is considered extremely rude to pass someone, no matter who it is, and not greet them. Here is an example of a conversation I have everyday on the road:

Salaamaalekum – Peace be unto you (Arabic)
Maalekum salaam – Peace return to you (Arabic)

Jaama ngam? – Do you have peace?
Jaama rek. – Peace only

Naka nga def? – How are you?
Jaama rek. – Peace only

Sa yaram jama? – Are you in good health?
Jaaama rek. – Peace only

Ana waa ker ngi? – How are the home people?
Nunga fa. – They are there.

Mbaa defunu dara? – Hope nothing is wrong with them?
Deedeet, defunu dara – No, nothing is wrong with them.

Naka ligeey bi? – How is the work?
Mangi si kowam, ndanka ndanka – I am on it, slowly-slowly.

This is usually shortened to “Salaamaalekum” “Maalekum salaam” “Naka nga def?” “Jaama rek.” But it is especially important to greet elders thoroughly. Some elders like to greet you using your surname (mine is “Jaw,” a traditionally Puular surname) and it’s a quick test to see if I can remember their surname (I usually can’t. But “Mangi si kowam, ndanka ndanka).

During Pre-Service Training, we had formal language classes with a Language and a Cultural Facilitator in order to learn the basics and survival language in order to enter our village. Once here, we have Peace Corps language materials, but my real teachers are my host siblings.

In the video, my sister Sadie is pounding koos (to pound – wol) and my other host siblings are asking me to play with them (“Ali! Defma ‘woo wah!'” – which just means “Ali! Lift me up in the air!”). From time to time, I’ll use my Wolof dictionary, but it’s usually more fun to learn Wolof from my 4 year old sister as I teach her a little English. While we walk around the village, they’ll show me something in Wolof and I’ll tell them the word in English. Homework time is also a learning time for both of us, because often I have to translate the question or passage into Wolof and then back into English for them to understand.

Wolof Dictionary

Wolof is the primary language spoken in my village, but the interesting thing about local languages here is that people usually are able to speak all of them. While the national language is English (The Gambia was a British colony up until about 50 years ago), local languages include Mandinka, Wolof, Puular, Jola, and Serahule. Since there are Puular and Mandinka villages around mine, sometimes patients come to the clinic and speak only those languages. Therefore, most people speak all of the languages at least a little bit. A few weeks ago, I attended a Mini STOMP Out Malaria Boot Camp. Because we have Peace Corps volunteers all over the country, speaking all 5 languages, we translated important words pertaining to Malaria into the four main languages.

I mentioned this in the Education post, but language is one of the biggest barriers to education in this country. At home and throughout the village, children speak their local languages, but then at school they learn and are tested in English. Literacy is difficult when you’re learning 3 or 4 languages at one time, and usually English is spoken only at school.

Some other useful Wolof words:
Morning – suba, Breakfast – ndecke
Afternoon – bechek, Lunch – an
Evening – ngon, Dinner – reer
Night – gudi, “Jaama nga fnaan” – Hope you slept in Peace
Water – ndox, Pump – pompe
Defa feebar – to be ill
Bugana – I want, Buguma – I don’t want
Daala – shoe
Soble – onion
Neebe – beans
Saabu – soap
Jen – fish
Ganaar – chicken
Nen – egg
“Naata la?” – how much does it cost
Tawte – to get caught in the rain (not too useful now that it’s not the rainy season, but I like this one).

One thought on “Wolof

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