It’s good to be back in Niger.
Not to harp on the same issue every time I resume posting here, but since it takes me some time to warm up to the places I’m visiting, and it plays a big part in how I seem to spend my time abroad these days, it seems that reflecting on language may be the best place to start. I arrived in Niger barely more than a week after completing an intensive two-month program in Hausa language at the University of Florida. (In that regard the timing for this trip couldn’t have been better, though I’m absolutely exhausted.) Hausa is the dominant language in northern Nigeria and serves as the primary trade language in Niger, even among people who do not identify themselves as Hausa; it’s also spoken in numerous communities throughout Africa, including Ghana, Cameroon, and even Sudan, the indigenous language with the largest number of people who speak it as their first language in Africa (I mention this as a little jab at my fellow students of African languages at the University of Florida, where the Hausa class was one of the smallest). Being able to offer a few greetings and, haltingly, continue some basic conversations with various acquaintances has afforded me a lot of confidence that I lacked during my previous visit to Niger. It’s also made me feel like I speak French really well, which is absolument faux.
Nowhere does language stand out to me as much as when riding a cab. In Niger, taxis are shared by multiple passengers who are headed to destinations along the same route. If you hail a cab and it’s not headed in the direction you need, the taxi driver just takes off, leaving you to hope for better luck with the next one. I may be taking the process of getting a cab too seriously, but I find myself thinking of those times when one announces their desired destination to the driver, through the passenger window, as moments of truth: will he stay or will he go? As a taxi pulls over for me I calculate the relative comfort with which I can speak the names of my destinations, in French or Hausa. Although I’m much more fluid with French, there are some sounds that still make me tongue-tied; and I ideally speak as much Hausa as I can.
The problem, I have found, is that the combination of my really rough Hausa and the assumption that as an anasara (white person, foreigner) I will speak French leads to taxi drivers and passengers not understanding my requests at first. No surprises there. The breakdown in communication via different languages is its own kind of noise, and just like tuning the dial on the radio to improve the signal, I find myself trying one phrase or language and then another pretty quickly until we arrive at an understanding. If I ask for “Gidan Mohammadou Issoufou” (President Mohammadou Issoufou’s house, in Hausa), taxi drivers invariably ask “l’ancienne?” (the former one?, in French). It’s rough, but it gets the job done, and the code switching is certainly not exclusive to people like myself, linguistically blundering their way through Niamey. Each day, though, I’m relying more and more heavily on Hausa; I’m even racking up my phone expenses by holding conversations almost exclusively in Hausa, which requires my extremely patient friends to repeat everything three times. Kadan kadan. Little by little. At least I seem to make people in the taxis laugh with surprise when I say “ya isa” (Hausa: “it’s enough,” or more loosely, “stop here”).
It’s me! Helping prepare lunch with my old friend Halima. Well, trying to help.