“Why bother learning Wolof?”
It’s a recurring, not-unreasonable question I hear from all sides, including many Senegalese people. What’s the use of a language that is basically only spoken in this tiny corner of the globe, especially when French is enough to get by throughout Dakar and transfers to so many other countries? The primary is an old adage adapted a thousand ways: “If you want to talk to a man’s head, speak in a shared language. To talk to his heart, speak his mother tongue.” When I intone a respectful “bonjour” to people on the street, they reply in kind. But “salaam alekum” with hand over heart – the warmth of the response is overwhelming.
So we learn the language to develop relationships with its speakers, and in so doing learn about their culture. But what can we learn of culture from the language itself?
Naturally, we tend to give short easy to names to concepts we refer to frequently. Wolof is full of short words for specific, often complicated actions: root – to fill with water; foot – to clean laundry; and nef – to have too many children in too short a period. What does it say about the primacy of family in Wolof culture that we can use three letters to mean so much, even that one should have need of that specific concept? “Jëfandikoo,” in contrast, means “to use.”
Perhaps we can likewise learn from homonyms by surmising their origins. “Garab” means both “medicine” and “tree” – and no wonder, since so much is traditional medicine is derived from trees! As several of my fellow Bridge Year participants have learned by observation in the classroom, there’s a reason “yar” can mean either “lash” or “education.” The incredible hospitality displayed in Wolof culture is summarized by my personal favorite set of homonyms: “gan,” meaning “guest,” “foreigner,” and “immigrant.” We might describe this list as not a group of homonyms but a cultural unification of concepts that in America we feel the need to make distinct. In Wolof, any and all are welcome and accepted. This is evident in the language itself. Dakar Wolof pulls freely from Arabic and French to name the artifacts of Islam and colonialism, respectively, welcoming both into the language and daily life.
And maybe even the pronoun structure of the whole language has something to teach us. In Wolof, instead of conjugating verbs, each tense has an associated pronoun set. This strikes me as possibly the result of a fluid view of identity. Regardless of when an action occurred, the action is the same; it’s the actor who has changed. Thus we should keep the verb and change the pronoun!
The pronouns themselves have noteworthy structure. For many pronoun sets, the first- and third-person plural pronouns are the same. And why shouldn’t they be? The only difference between the two groups is the inclusion or exclusion of the speaker, no more important than any other member of the group.
After all this musing, it seems appropriate to admit how little I actually know. Maybe these cultural hypotheses are spot-on. Maybe they’ll be dismissed entirely tomorrow. Either way I’ll keep learning Wolof because, out of those few million Wolof speakers, one of them is my homestay mother. Yaay Khady doesn’t speak French, but she is warm and sassy and kind. Any time I use a French word around the house, she tells me I should learn to say it in Wolof. So I guess that’s what I’ll do – after all, mother knows best.
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaeeeeeehhhhhhh!!!” one yells repeatedly at the top of one’s lungs, tongue extended out as far as possible, at six in the morning, halfway through the daily yoga routine in Banaras. Yogic awakening rituals in Namchi and other cities all across India perform a similar daily roar, as well as various breathing exercises and self-invoked laughter. When I first experienced these practices, I was confused. Why was everyone around me suddenly roaring like a wild cat? Contrived laughter confounded me. I thought people only laughed in response to funny things. But here laughter works both ways. It synthesizes humour and brings a lightness to the beginning of each day. The roaring and laughing initially overwhelmed my Western ears at six in the morning. But they imbue the day with a vitality and love of life that are at the core of the Indian spirit.
If you listen, you can always hear the Indian spirit.
The bustle of the streets. Rambunctious children running about. Street vendors peddling their goods, calling out to attract customers. Bells clanging in nearby temples. Bicycle rickshaws dinging their bells as they pedal under the sun. A cacophony of horn honking fills the air of the street. Neverquiet in the city. Always moving, biking, honking, selling, buying, playing, praying, ing, ing, ing. There’s a vigor to life in the Indian city. People are excited. People are present. People do things.
Of course the atmosphere isn’t always pleasant, or nice. There’s heat, there’s dirt, there’s illness, poverty, and thievery. In the West we try to avoid these things, or pretend they don’t exist. But not in India. One of the first Hindi phrases I learned was “koi bat nahi,” which means, “no problem,” or “it’s nothing.” Since then I’ve heard this expression countless times, in an array of varied situations. Perhaps there’s a logistical mistake while traveling: koi bat nahi. Or there aren’t enough momos for lunch: koi bat nahi. Or a train leaves a little late: koi bat nahi. In India I’ve found a general attitude of unphasability and resilience that is deeply admirable, and that puts the endemic Western entitlement mentality into perspective.
This vitality and willingness to face all aspects of life makes India an intense place for the senses. Certainly the ears are often inundated with noise and clamor. But vigor and bustle are only the exterior of India’s psyche. To get to its core, we must go deeper, past the loud, rough buzz of the streets, into a household, or a school, a place where ears meet tongues and the air is alive with language.
Our first encounter with the Hindi language was in a beginner Hindi lesson with Hemant-ji, a native Banarsi yogi who traveled with us during the first month of our program. His English was excellent. We had no trouble communicating. Learning the Hindi alphabet, however, was a different story. English may have some of the most obnoxious spelling rules, but Hindi actually has more distinct sounds that the mouth must create and the ears must interpret. For example, Hindi differentiates between aspirated and unaspirated consonants, also between dental and retroflex “T”s and “D”s. Our ears are not trained to process these distinctions, much less produce them. During our class with Hemant-ji, which can be accurately described as a confluence of incongruous sound systems, we embarked on a journey to retrain our ears, to retrain our tongues.
Hearing Hindi does not cease with the locals’ spoken word. An overall much more audibly enjoyable use of language is the chant. In every corner of the subcontinent, there are chants leaking out of temples, monasteries, holy sites. Spilling into the streets and saturating the air with mild vibrations. From the foothills of the Himalaya to the streets of Banaras and Delhi, chanting pervades the atmosphere of this country and all its religious divides. In this chanting, be it Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim, there is a certain confidence and piety that perhaps accounts for the aforementioned Indian vitality. This is not an arrogant narrow-mindedness or blind devotion. It’s less a belief than a way of acting, a way of conducting daily life. In Banaras, everyone is supposed to have a “sacred life.” Every morning I have been joining my host mom on her daily ritual. Wake up at five. Drive to Assi Ghat. Pay respects to Hanuman and Shiva. Descend the steps to the river and offer water to the sun. Watch the sun rise from the steps. Listen to the day’s musicians. Mild wake up yoga. Drive to Hanuman temple. Pay respects and walk a clockwise circle around each of the shrines. Honor the sun. While I do not yet understand the significance of many of these actions, performing them alongside my host mother evokes a mysterious and intangible fulfillment. My host mother is a flexible person, not set in her ways. But nevertheless, she performs this daily ritual. Based on my short time in India so far, I think that although religion is a larger part of people’s lives here, it is practiced in a way that is unimposing and humble. I have felt so welcome participating in my host mother’s routine. And I have even started to catch myself more and more frequently humming a chant to myself. Perhaps good vibes are contagious.
One last stop on the ears’ journey: what is the sound of the Himalaya? What does one hear in the presence of Kangchenjunga, of Mt. Everest? These dormant beasts tower above reality. They exist above the clouds, in a world so different from our own. People have ventured there, and yet the existence of such gargantuan peaks is none the more fathomable to me. They emanate gravity and inspire awe. This may sound superstitious, but I do believe that the Himalaya imbue the subcontinent with a special energy. They supply the water for India’s holy rivers, they are the abode of Shiva. In some metaphysical sense, the mountains seem to lend a depth to this country’s vitality. But what did the ears hear on our trek in Sikkim, during the third week of our program? My ears heard silence from the mountain. But not an empty silence. In fact, it was the most ecstatic, charged silence I have ever experienced. As I watched the sun illuminate Kangchenjunga in the morning before the clouds obscured the view, I felt an intense duality: the coexistence of insatiable excitement and steadfast peace. This what I heard from the mountain, despite the utter lack of sound.
Perhaps this duality can more fully define the Indian spirit. The mountain may speak to me in this way. And yet I can turn around and hear the same message from the fervent and spiritually content Indian people.
We said good-bye to our homestay families yesterday afternoon. Or, at least, we left.
At the send off party, I played soccer the first hour and a half, during which my host father left without saying good-bye. The rest of my family had been unable to come to the party. I returned from the game, panting, sweating, smiling, looking for Don David, slowly realizing with a placid calm that he had left and I would never see him again. My post card, with my contact information and a brief note scrawled on it, sat heavy in my pocket.
I thought of the walk two hours earlier, from our house to the program house, when he had helped me carry my bags and we had moved in silence. I made a few small attempts at conversation, all trite and flat. Then we reached the house, and I had gone to play soccer, and I did not see him again.
The first time we met, we made the same journey in reverse, and that time we had also moved in silence, but it had been of a different kind. Then it was for unfamiliarity, and for awkwardness; because our togetherness was new. The second time the silence was because our time was ending, and there was nothing to say. I disliked the first silence less.
The first silence had ended at a metal grate door, through which a pair of large dogs burst, coating my red shirt with dusty paw prints. We passed through the gate to a house the size of my garage, but made of cruder materials–a rough white stucco with red windows and a corrugated tin roof that gave a satisfying tink with each drop of rain. “Descansa,” Don David had said, pointing me to my room and leaving me to rest. He wore a denim jacket and jeans and leather boots, and he had a handsomely proud face that rested in a thin, pallid smile that expressed no emotion. Upon his upper lip grew a salt and pepper mustache, so well maintained that it looked fake. “Descansa.” It was a word I would hear often during my stay. After sixteen hours of sleep the first night, I had fully recovered from the exhausting overnight bus ride, yet still he said the word to me everyday as I arrived home, or offered to help, or finished a meal. Descansa. Always with the same intonation, at the same times of day, firm and predictable.
I decided that Descansa did not mean rest–it meant personal space. And in granting this to me, my family was different from the other homestay families–the families that watched movies together, and had loud, boisterous dinners, and celebrated traditionally on Todos Santos, and said goodbye at the end of it all. My family was not like that; we each spent our evenings alone, and our dinners were quiet, and our holidays were just days, albeit with more food and family time. And at the end of it all they went quietly away, not wanting to disturb me from my game.
I grew to know each of them well, though we talked little. Doña Virginia was rarely home, but when she was she always spoke in throaty Quechua, a mischievous sneer on her lips. She was short and squat, with harsh dimples and slightly asymmetrical eyes. Unlike Americans, who slow down their speech with age, Bolivians seem to speed up the older they get, and Doña Virginia was no exception, speeding through her sentences as if to make up for her diminished mobility. She was funny–I knew this because the others always turned to her with a half smile and turned away with a full one. Many times I heard ‘Ben’ in the midst of one of her unintelligible comments, and saw the silent laughs, and had the satisfaction of being the butt of a joke. I welcomed the jokes, for they were about the only thing I gave in exchange for a home.
Janet, her twenty-four year old daughter, worked in an agricultural lab. She was gorgeous, with the handsome high cheekbones and flat narrow face of her father, and she spoke slowly and melodically. She was very kind to me, but always serious, even when she laughed. Her mouth smiled, but her eyes were sober, as if aware of some great injustice that she could never, even for a moment, forget. Maybe it was that I was her parents’ guest, yet I stayed in her room, and she in her absent brother’s. Or that she was asked to cook me food, and teach me to hand-wash my clothing, and answer the questions I asked in near-unintelligible Spanish. Or that I was a stupid teenage American who couldn’t cook for myself, or wash my clothing properly, or speak the native language without making an idiot of myself, and yet I was the one traveling the world. I knew from our few conversations that she wanted to visit China some day.
Don David was ever present, and I interacted with him the most. My first impression of him was one of a sober and practical man, unhappy and hardened by life. When we first met, before the entire group, we were asked to take a photo; he stood still, face stolid, arms flat against his sides, and I moved beside him, nearly wrapping my arm around his shoulder but deciding the risk outweighed the reward. We spoke little on our way to the house, and the Che Guevara posters on the front wall stared me down as I first entered the iron gate. As the dogs hopped up on me, he kicked them. “Sale!” he barked as they yelped and fled. At his bidding I napped for an hour, and then he awoke me for lunch. We gulped down our vegetable soup in silence, him finishing before me and exiting the kitchen. “Descansa,” the call came back.
Once every twenty minutes or so, as I would sit in my room, reading, I would hear his door open. At first, silence; then a deep hacking cough. Then he would slap the ground with his spit. A soft pat; a light slap, and the door would close, and I would have another twenty minutes of uninterrupted silence.
I learned after a couple of days that the coughing was a result of a serious heart condition, and that the family could not afford surgery. “The operation costs ten thousand,” he said one night at dinner, shaking his head.
A few nights later I learned that he had revolted with Che Guevara in his youth and had been sentenced to three years in jail for his activism. He had escaped.
But while Don David was practical and, at times, quite serious, I had otherwise pegged him wrong. Our time together continued to be dominated by silence, but less so as we grew more comfortable with each other, and the silence that remained felt warm, natural. He sometimes made jokes, and he often laughed. One evening I discreetly threw the peel of an apple I had eaten, within the privacy of my room, into the trash; the next morning he wordlessly handed me a fresh one. While he harshly disciplined his animals, he cared for them just as dearly, patiently nurturing a litter of puppies born weeks before I arrived; he even made a short song for one of them and I often heard him chanting it as the puppies wiggled gleefully through his legs.
He always turned to Doña Virginia with a warm half smile. I could tell that he loved her. And one day, as Janet expertly explained an agricultural principle to a visitor, I noticed him watching her, and I could tell that he loved her too, and that she made him very happy.
Together the family was warm; quiet; private. They showed their kindness in small ways. I did not get a chance to say good-bye, and that made me feel strange. But I now think it would have been more strange if I had. It would have felt wrong to say good-bye because I never really said hello.
Decisiveness, action, results. Like many other westerners, I prefer directness and a goal oriented approach. In Asia, I often find myself frustrated by the round-about way that relationships or status is adhered to and respects given before any attention is devoted to addressing the larger issue. I understand the importance of observing cultural traditions, yet the resulting inefficiency often leaves me frustrated. In many places it is impossible to get a firm “yes”, and as I found in China,”maybe”, always means no. While visiting the Mekong River Commission (MRC), I found myself contemplating various cultural aspects that could influence the MRC’s effectiveness, but ultimately arrived at the conclusion that culture is too diverse and vague to provide a convincing argument. If it is not culture that ultimately explains the MRC’s inability to slow down or prevent the potentially catastrophic mainstream dams that are being built along the lower Mekong, what is it then? What is hindering decisiveness, action, and constraining environmental conservation efforts? It is the MRC’s mandate to spectate.
Our stay in Vientiene, the “capital village” of Laos, saw our group delve into the environmental and geo-political implications of lower Mekong hydropower development. The foremost authority on the technical and political issues facing this region’s water resources and environment is the MRC. We were fortunate enough to secure a meeting at MRC headquarters with one of their representatives. Having already born witness to China’s impact on the Mekong through its wreckless and unchecked cascade of dams, our group was hoping to hear a positive outlook for the Mekong’s future development. What we got was the representative’s effort to portray a prosperouse future for the Mekong and an active role for the MRC, but for those of us looking for greater talk of sustainable development commitments and a more cautious approach to large-scale hydropower development, we left extremely dissapointed.
When it comes to environmental protection and sustainable development, China is an easy and often times deserving target for criticism. Even though a significant portion of the Mekong River flows through China, it has refused to become a member of the MRC and is merely a “dialogue partner”. China, as part of what I like to call its practice of “International Collaboration with Chinese Characteristics”, has again chosen one-sided selfishness by refusing to disclose water data, reservoir levels, and other development information with downstream countries. Our group experienced China’s oversensitive paranoia with regards to its hydropower projects first hand. After much effort and inquiry as to whether it was even possible for our group to get close to the Jinghong Dam, we were bluntly told that, “Muslims and/or foreigners are not allowed to visit or approach the dam complex”. At least the Chinese authorities were direct…
The MRC representative that we met with also refused to say anything negative with regards to China and its impact on the lower Mekong countries. We were always left with the ambiguous answer, “relations with China are evolving and stalled by a complicated domestic political situation”. This answer was an easy and effective way of deflecting China related questions. By blaming China’s obstinance and refusal to partake as a full MRC member on the country’s internal politics, the representative successfully avoided attributing any blame on China for inadequate dialouge or any other shortcomings.
Only after several students asked about the negative environmental and social impacts of mainstream Mekong dams, like the Xayaburi and Don Sahong projects, did we fully begin to understand the source of the MRC’s inability to influence the regions development, it’s mandate. Time and again we were given the answer, “the MRC cannot (insert any type of action here)…because the MRC is an advisory body, not a regulatory agency. If it is not in our mandate, then we cannot do it”. The MRC has become an organization that provides technical cooperation and acts as a platform for dialogue on water resource management issues. Technical assistance and dialogue are important and certainly needed when it comes to complicated transboundary water resources issues, but is research and discussion enough? Is this enough to slow down damaging projects with irreversible impacts that will do more harm than good? It isn’t.
The MRC representative proudly discussed a $400-million dollar redesign of the Xayburi Dam as proof that MRC facilitated dialogue is leading to positive outcomes. The Vientiene Times, a state run newspaper, has gone so far as to start referriing to the Xayaburi Dam as a “run of river” hydropower project. A “run of river” dam is one that does not impede the flow of the river, and therefore, does not create a massive reservoir that damages the environment and displaces people. If this redesign has indeed prevented the creation of a reservoir and avoided irreversible environmental damage I will be thoroughly impressed, but I highly doubt that this is the case. The Thai investors in Xayaburi need to recoup their money, the Lao government needs to have this project completed on time, and the other clauses written in the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) need to be met. Accomplishing all of this with a truly “run of river” design and maintaining the ability to generate the specified amount of energy, to my knowledge, is not possible. The words “run of river” and a large-scale hydropower project like Xayaburi, are anything but synonymous.
When it comes to Xayaburi and the MRC, what has actually happened is far from the story that the representative attempted to portray. International law and the Mekong Agreement prohibit MRC member governments from implementing a project while the other national governments are still discussing it—this is part of the obligation to negotiate “in good faith.” However, Laos and Thai developers started implementing the Xayaburi Dam in late 2010 before the Mekong governments met to discuss the project and before further studies requested by Cambodia and Vietnam to determine the transboundary impact of the project even commenced. Laos has violated the Mekong Agreement, made false claims that Xayaburi is environmentally sustainable, and ignored the general consensus amongst fishery experts that its proposed mitigation measures for fishery impacts are unlikely to work. Despite continued calls for further research and dialogue, the same story is now repeatinig itself with the Don Sahong Dam, a mere 3km up from the Laos border with Cambodia. All of this is happening while the MRC adheres to its mandate to spectate.
So if the MRC is bound by its mandate as an “advisory body”, what should its future role be if it is unable to slow down or stop damaging large-scale hydropower development? The chances of MRC member countries sacrificing any semblence of sovereignty to give the MRC a stronger mandate are slim to none. The MRC will certainly continue its technical assistance and dialogue, but going forward I hope that the MRC will devote greater effort and resources towards helping the most vulnerable and impoverished people along the Mekong. These are individuals that desperately need help adapting to an array of climatic changes, threats to their livelihoods, and the other impacts of large-scale hydropower development. The MRC is by no means an implementer of development projects, yet they must work to find a role for themselves within this community that is working to ensure a better future for those impacted by a changing Mekong River.
As the meeting with MRC came to a close I found myself thinking of the saying, “the ends justify the means”. This expression, a favorite of many U.S. politicians, serves to explain large-scale hydropower developers platform: that thousands of mega-watts (the ends) justifies projects that have negative environmental and social externalities (the means). Similar to how the United Nations (UN) rarely breaks its various peace keeping agreements, the MRC would never violate its mandate and do what is ultimately necessary to protect the Mekong River. But how many Rawandans, Darfurians, and Bosnians would be alive today if the UN had considered whether “the ends” of saving lives, justified “the means” of breaking a mandate to do so? Can we stand idly by and watch while the last remaining segments of untamed river are turned into reservoirs?
I do not claim to have a solution for the sustainable development of Mekong River water resources. Given our current economic model, the various systems of governance in place in this region, and China’s refusal to cooperate in the existing dialogue processes, I do not believe that there is a viable solution that will be able to deliver anything close to a future Mekong River that is ecologically healthy and resembles the turbulent river that it once was. Unfortunately, like the MRC, we all have a mandate to spectate the impending destruction of the Mekong River…
Yesterday I was sitting in my kitchen, choking on my last breakfast because I was so unbelievably nervous for my departure to Kathmandu. Today I am in India with only a month left on this crazy adventure.
Yesterday I still flinched and jumped out of the way every time a car beeped at me on the streets (every 5 seconds). Today, it doesn’t faze me, and I just continue along my way as all the others do.
Yesterday I had never worn a sari. Today, I’ve had the pleasure of having 3 aamaa’s perfectly wrapping and arranging my sari, and then fawning over my hair and makeup, all the while telling me I’m beautiful.
Yesterday, walking around in a foreign town by myself for a few hours would have been terrifying. Today I know that it’s not, because I did it.
Yesterday, the Nepali side to side head nod that signifies yes still looked like a maybe to me. Today, I subconsciously responded to a question with the head nod myself.
Yesterday I would have adamantly told you I hate Justin Beiber. Today, after jamming out to his new song “Sorry” with my host brother every morning, mid-morning, day, mid-day, afternoon, evening and night, I cannot express this hatred with the same certainty anymore.
Yesterday, many of us would not have willingly challenged ourselves to another homestay. Today we collectively decided that another homestay was something we wanted.
Yesterday I was still counting down the days on my calendar till we leave our Kalimpong homestay. Today I am avoiding my calendar because I don’t want to be reminded of how soon it’s over.