Saturday, April 10, 2010


I believe that it is impossible for any reality to exist so miraculous that it can authoritatively prove the existence of God. However, the fact that the United States government assigned me to live and work in Mali because of my background in French is so absurd, in fact, that it ipse facto proves that if there is a God, He must have a sadistic sense of humor.

You see, the general rule among Peace Corps Assignment Officers is that if an applicant has any knowledge of the French language, they get sent to Africa, anyone who can speak Spanish goes to Latin America, and that one linguistics major who wrote her thesis on Kyrgyz poetry gets sent to Kyrgyzstan. This rule generally makes a lot of sense, for it efficiently utilizes Volunteers pre-existing skills and places them in communities where they can most readily integrate. And when PC Washington was going through my application way back when, they were apparently very impressed by the fact that I took 6 years of French back in junior high and high school – so much, in fact, that they decided that I should be assigned to a country in Francophone Africa.

The fact that I do know French has been more of a liability than an asset here in Mali. When people like me arrive with a solid background in French in this officially Francophone country, we wrongly assume that we can communicate with the locals and that they will understand what we are saying. I am one of those pretentious assholes who spends his free time reading Camus and Baudrillard in the original, so when I first came here and bank tellers told me that they too spoke French and I reflexively told them what to do with my money in the conditional pluperfect subjunctive tense, time and time again I would become enervated when they mangled my instructions. Presuming that people here actually speak French only leads to situations in which the Francophones get frustrated, the locals feel lorded over, and everyone loses.

Even in Africa where each and every tribe has developed their own language which they have been speaking for thousands of years, there are some African countries which have wholeheartedly embraced the language of their former colonial masters. In Ghana where there are 47 traditional tongues, the government is promoting English as the single national language in order to mitigate tribal identification and shore up national identity. Some former French colonies like Senegal and Benin have also forged such a post-tribal national culture that parents raise their children to converse exclusively in the official, formerly colonial language. And such profound cultural shifts don’t just happen with a presidential proclamation; the reason why English is the common vernacular in Ghana and French is so prevalent in Senegal and Benin is that the governments of these countries have spent the past half century investing in the education of their citizens, particularly in literacy and language instruction.

Senegal and Benin are exceptions in that they truly are Francophone countries. In the bulk of the former French colonies like Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali, there is an elite class of government officials, soldiers, gendarmes and teachers who use French for the workplace. And there is an even smaller minority of persons who do not work in government but can command the French language because they were born to such immense wealth to have attended private lycées. Though after decades of gross government neglect of the public welfare, the vast majority of adults have never received even a cursory elementary education, more than 70 percent of the population is absolutely illiterate, and they definitely do not speak more than a few token words outside of their local tribal tongue.

… But if asked, they will tell you that they do in fact speak Tubabukan ¬– the “language of the white people”. Of course, there is no such thing – the Tubabukan spoken here is a patois hybrid of French and Bambara we call “Frambara”; the nonsense that Malians who have never interacted with foreigners mislead each other into thinking is truly the “language of the white people”; usually, it is only Bambara laced with a few French nouns, maybe "est-ce que", "le voila", or - my favorite - "peut-etty". And likewise, most Malians are taught that if you see a Tubab, the proper thing to do is to address them in “their own language”:

“Bozu le Blanc!”

Here, the colloquial “Ça va?” – “how goes it?” – has transformed into functional equivalent of “Bozu”. People will shout “Sava! Sava!” and they think that they are greeting me. It is also common for Malians to greet Tubabs “Sava! Sava sava byen!” – which must have originated in the dialogue of an introductory French textbook “Ça va?”/ “Ça va bien!” and has now regressed into a greeting uttered by one single person. Thus it is thought that "Bozu sava sava biyen" is how we white people say hello.

The most entertaining phenomenon is how Frambara has taken certain phrases and so warped their meaning that they induce cringes in anyone with a rudimentary understanding of their etymological origins. For example, in Mali it is perfectly customary for people to come up to me at 8:00 in the morning and greet “Bo swa, Monsieur!”

Soir means ‘evening’. You cannot greet anyone ‘Bon soir!’ until the sun is setting.”

“No, when you see a white person you are supposed to greet them ‘Bo swa’.”

“That… doesn’t make any sense.”

“That’s what we do in our country.”

“… As I said…”

Other times I am greeted “Bo swa, Madame!” When this happens I like to think that these kids must have learned this phrase in the context of a female teacher, which must mean that at one point in their short lives they have in fact sat in a classroom. But there are other Tubabukan bastardizations that suggest more nefarious settings.

Children in the cities greet me with a bastardization of French with a mission: “Bozu cadeau? Sava sava cadeau?” When I am confronted with such obscenity, it is apparent that some asshole taught this kid that if they see a white person, all they have to do is say these magic words and the white person will smile and give them a lollipop. But when you’ve been living here for an extended amount of time and have been petitioned for a cadeau every single day by kids and adults alike who think of white people as arcade machines which will give you a toy if only you toggle the joystick and push their buttons the right way, these childlike Frambara-isms quickly become downright dehumanizing.

The absolute worst bastardization of French is when I’m in the city and I’m approached by one of the barefoot, tomato can-toting beggar children and they blurt out, “Tubabu! Do mwa cinq mille francs!” Initially, such an utterance impresses me in that it is in fact a complete sentence – a lot more than can be said of 95 percent of the "French" spoken here. However, in every such situation it is fairly obvious that if I were to reply “Préferez-vous un billet de cinq mille francs ou cinq billets d’une mille francs?” or even “Tu t’appelles comment?” the kid would have no idea what I’m saying. These kids are never going to be taught proper French greetings, introductions, how to ask for directions or the weather. “Do mwa cinq mille francs!” constitutes the entirety of that garabout’s French, because their “Quranic teacher” only instructs their cash cows in that one saying to finance their sedentary lifestyles. Accordingly, the marabouts instill the despicable misunderstanding that the language of Senghor, Césaire and Fanon is the language of humble supplication to white people.

The logic of a Malian greeting white people in Tubabukan is inherently racist – not necessarily a vicious ideology of racial supremacy, but at least the belief that all persons of a similar skin tone are indifferentiable. Of course, if a given Malian is walking down the street and they see person with pale skin, to the Malian it makes sense to greet this stranger in Tubabukan when 70 percent of all of the melanin-deficient they will ever interact with are in fact French, Belgian, Quebeçois or Luxembourgian. But there are also a lot of Americans, Germans, Spaniards and Italians who come here speaking no French at all, and according to Malian logic they too are greeted “Bozu! Sava sava byen!” because Tubabukan is “the language of the white people” – all of them. The term Tubabu refers to Aryans, Slavs, Arabs, Persians, Latinos, and all non-African persons alike. Even when Japanese or Korean tourists trek through Dogon Country with their brand new video cameras, they too are greeted by the locals “Bozu! Sava bonbon!” When Malians address each and every white person with what they think is “our own language”, it only demonstrates how profoundly unaware they are of the outside world and the crudeness of their racialism.

Even when the adult population addresses made in grammatically correct, polite French along the lines of “Excusez-moi, monsieur, est-ce que tu es perdu?” or “Je vends du pain du qualité superieur!” it strikes me as patronizing and just as innocently racist. When people speak to me in French, it means they assume that I am a lazy NGO worker or gold miner who is only here to interact with government ministers and rarely leaves the hermetically-sealed, self-contained expatriate biodome – or even worse: a tourist.

So when anyone in this country ever speaks to me in French, I instinctively reply in Bambara – and after a few lines of dialogue in which the Bambara is speaking broken Tubabukan and the Tubabu is speaking fluent Bamanankan the former eventually realizes the folly of their efforts and switches gears into their own language. Now that I’m starting to pick up Miniankakan – the really, really local language which only has any use in the tiny homeland of the Minianka subgroup of the Bambara tribe, around my home base I can show off how dedicated I am to integration with an even greater effect. The response is universally effusive, for these people have spent their entire lives thinking that they have to learn the language of their former colonial masters if they ever want to do business with the West – with much detriment to their collective self-esteem. Thus when an Occidental comes to live amongst an isolated culture and takes the time to learn to speak to them in their own obscure tongues, the symbolism is lost on no one.

When people ask me why I do not speak to them in French like all the other Tubabs do, I point out the ideological chasm between my country and the Old World powers:

Americainw Mali la kono be Mali kanw kalan tiyenna barisa folofolo Angleterre tun be an mara i na fo jonw ye, ni an ye keleke fo an ye an yere ka jamana mine. I be se ka fo ka an te fe ka jamanw were mara.

“Americans in Mali take the time to learn Malian tongues largely because of our own history of exploitation by the British and our War for Independence… You could say that our own experience has left a particular distaste for colonialism.”


Ed said...

Great post Zac. Is that the literal translation of what you say? It strikes me that you can actually say pretty complex stuff in Bambara!

pH said...

... but you are a lazy NGO worker!

Seriously though, I know your blog serves a function of letting you blow off a little steam, but as your loving comrade I have to submit some criticism. How can some one ascertain what a stranger speaks without choosing a language to at least ask the question in? Some one speaks to you in French: why do you think of this as condescension rather than them making an effort to accommodate you? Isn't it possible that they're just trying to be polite? Why should they assume you speak their damn tiny-vocabularied hich language? Half a billion people speak French and only 2.7 million speak Bambara (thanks, wikipedia!). It's lingua franca and not lingua bambara.

I think your hang up on racism is misplaced. It’s as though you're mongering the authenticity of finally being able to be the subject of racial discrimination rather the aggressor--surely whatever instances of anti-Semitism you might have experienced in life constitute a better example of real racism. This isn’t vicious, modern racism, this is the ancient racism of a more base and vulgar (but fare more forgivable) limitation: parochialism. The problem is not racism per se, but a reified notion of the outsider, the foreigner, as though all the world outside their little dirt eating communities were the same. If you go to Latvia, say, and you don't speak Latvian, well then people assume you speak Russian. Don't begrudge those poor hicks for addressing you in the language that seems statistically most likely.

Finally for praise, the ending was great. Now that’s real cultural ambassadorship.

Averill Strasser said...


We just fully funded your PCPP Solar Pump repair project, so you should be getting the money shortly!

We also partially funded your School Latrines project last year.

Our donors love to see pictures and numbers. Would you be so kind as to forward to me a few pictures for each project? Also, can you tell me the number of people served by each project?


Averill Strasser
Water Charity

Lili Snyder said...

You could make the same argument about how white people think that all Arabic people make the same language: "it only demonstrates how profoundly unaware they are of the outside world and the crudeness of their racialism." said...

Do you need a financial help? Are you in any financial crisis or do you need funds to start up your own business? Do you need funds to settle your debt or pay off your bills or start a good business? Do you have a low credit score and you are finding it hard to obtain capital services from local banks and other financial institutes? Here is your chance to obtain a financial services from our company. We offer the following finance to individuals-
*Commercial finance
*Personal finance
*Business finance
*Construction finance
*Business finance And many More:
and many more at 2% interest rate;
Contact Us Via