A familiar face

August 27, 2010

The following is an entry from my journal.

 “Biyé,” he said.

“B A” I replied.

“Biyé.”

“BA.”

“Ten times, say it 10 times.” My language instructor said to me in French. The word was actually “billet” or ticket and I couldn’t mock the pronunciation enough to get it to stick.

Even in English, pronunciation is rough for me. I attended speech therapy as a kid and some things are tough for me to get – I may never know how to correctly say pneumonia and I tend to give a long ‘a’ to basketball. Naturally, French is worse.

In college, my French teacher gave up on me after the first year and based my progress on comprehension and written text. I can do those things OK, even my instructors now think so, but when it I speak, my English sounds and American accent refuse to be subdued.

This encounter with my instructor was one of many on our two-week long language immersion. At first, my progress was noticeable, but by this particular day, our 8th, I was moving backwards. Simple, well-known words were unrecognizable and certain phrases seemed to have leapt out of mind. I became more defeated each time I opened my mouth.

Tears nearly swelled when my instructor told us that we needed to go to the market, find someone who spoke French, ask them were the bust ticket station is and find the prices alone. Up to this point, he would accompany us on such encounters with local, but not this particular time. It was up to my immersion partner, Sam, and me.

I could barely say the phrases to my instructor, let along a Nigerienne who isn’t accustomed to deciphering my Franglaise. Speaking to Americans in French is fine, and with my host family is OK. But, I often interactions longer than three exchanges with Nigeriennes because I am absolutely positive they won’t understand. Instead of trying and failing, I just don’t do it, which is worse.

This time, I couldn’t avoid it. And, in three shorts weeks, I will be 100 percent on my own and will be forced to for survival.

Walking to the market with Sam, a few boys along the route greeted us, first in Hausa then French. It took them a few tries for us to understand, but when we did, I was humiliated about the simplicity of their question. I can’t speak the local language, nor the one few people know. In Niger, French, the national language, is taught in schools, meaning only the educated know French and education is not mandatory. At certain times and in certain places, it can be difficult to find some who does speak French. On the street, you’ll usually find a Hausa person in Hausa regions and Zarma in Zarma regions.

At the market, we approached several groups of men who either couldn’t understand French or our version of French. They shouted back to us in Hausa (Nigeriennes often shout, and the level of their voice is not usually reflective of temper) but we gave back confused looks. One finally uttered, “Vous allez voulez?” or “What do you want?” We explained we were looking for the Chef de Gare, the person that is in charge of the places where buses, bush taxies and carts meet to pick up passengers. They pointed in the general direction of “there” and we wondered hoping to find a miracle.

We approached other people we approached didn’t speak French or didn’t want to talk to us. Approaching random people is the one thing I hated most about being a journalist. I often feel like an inconvenience to people and sometimes they treat me like one when all I want to do is my job. A high school athlete used to hide from me and I’d have to follow her around until she gave up and I could interview her. After the first time she did this, I cried in my car. That’s probably why I am not a good journalist or can’t commit to the profession, still, I thought of that girl this particular day.

We wondered the streets, hoping for some help, some person who could at least understand a few questions, albeit not well structured sentences.

Our miracle greeted us first. Wearing a bright white traditional dress, he raised his arm and said “Sannu.” He was the tailor we interviewed a few days before. At the time, he was patient with us and spoke simply and slowly. Before we could launch into the numerous greetings (How are you? How is your health? How is your tiredness? How is your work? How is your family?) I started to put the French questions on the tip of my tongue.

One of my favorite parts of South Dakota, or the Midwest, is seeing a familiar face unexpected. Run ins at coffee shops, grocery stores or concerts give me a sense that the world is small, even if it’s just my world, and I tend to be less intimidated. On this particular day, being in a strange village in a strange country, a familiar face saved me.

I gave him my statement landing each word like a perfect 10, even “billet”. He graciously responded by walking us to the bus station and greet the ticket vendor, who was also gentle and patient.

After we successfully finished the assignment, we turned to walk home and noticed a Peace Corps vehicle parked usually on a side street. We approached the white four-wheeler and found our training director. He was visiting the immersion sites and was on his way to ours. He greeted us with his distinct laugh. It wasn’t the first time his appearance out of nowhere calmed my nerves; the other being the first time I met him in the Niamey airport. He came to pick us up and introduce us to Niger. From the first time I saw his giant frame in a blue traditional dress, I knew I would be OK.

This time, the tailor was my hero, but the training director was a reminder that whereever I go in this country, I’ll be OK. There will always be someone willing to help this American girl, because, well, that’s Niger.

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