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Jan. 4th, 2013

Out of Africa

Once again, extracting myself from the clutches of Africa was not an easy process. From the maze of security, customs, and checkpoints in and out of airports to border crossings, temperature swings and time zones, I could not figure out what country I was in at the bus stop yesterday when I heard a man speaking on his cell in Bamana. I only looked up too late to realize I was back home in Bloomington as he hurried away out of the cold, telling someone he had to start work tomorrow, hopefully I will find him again so I will be able to logically shift everything into my left hand in order to give with the right, offer him half of everything in my possession, ask about the health and peace of every member of his extended family, avoid eye contact, all the little things I keep stopping myself from doing. Being away from the country for seven months is evidently one month too many as I seem to no longer be a resident of this land - car plates are expired, insurance lapsed, bank frozen, phone dead, house gone, many essential belongings disappeared. I thought I lived without too much, trying to avoid the excess that buries so many Americans in junk among their possessions, fat on their bodies, spam in their emails, viruses on their computers, depression in their minds. However, it seems in order to live here one rely on a myriad many things! Even living off the grid here requires planning, money, and a great deal of knowledge. From the post-apocalyptic scenery of post-colonial Africa to the wasteland of overly technological America, nothing makes sense anymore. Even the weather: oppressive heat or frigid cold, is there a balance somewhere? If someone knows, tell me so I can finally answer the question, 'after this, what next?'

Dec. 13th, 2012

Money Can't Buy Me Language

Adventures in Tiefo continued

After her fourth or so cup of sorghum beer, one of the last remaining speakers of Tiefo tells me, "My husband is dead, my mother and father are dead, 13 of my 15 children are dead. I had nothing. Until I met you."

Her respect and affection has been hard-won. Her age, lack of teeth, and drinking habits are only the initial obstacles a potential linguist would notice when beginning to study her dying language. The real challenge is her religion. Not that her animistic beliefs bother me as a Christian - far from it. I respect all the facets of her knowledge and appreciate her willingness to share it with me. Rather, it is the lengthy and frequent intermissions in elicitation that grow the analyst weary. It takes every fiber of my being to concentrate and listen, transcribe, process meaning, form, and sound patterns all at once during the gathering of dictionary, grammar, or most of all, textual phrases and words. In a society in which anyone can walk through your door unannounced at any moment, the interruptions are frequent and frustrating. Add on top of that the spirits which accompany my adopted Tiefo grandmother, and that concentration disintegrates. Mid-sentence she pauses and is suddenly talking to or pointing at the cowry shells or the iron snake on her bracelets, the copper ring, or even unseen objects and beings. Better yet, she involves me in the conversation which is unnerving when I am at my best.

Those of you who read about us accidently feeding catfish, her totem, will appreciate this story even more: we go for a walk with her the other day to show her around town. We innocently take her to see a monument near our house. We forgot that the monument is encircled by catfish, bronzed (recall her copper ring) onto the wall surrounding a now defunct pool/waterfall. Imagine the scene from Kanye West's Runaway video when the Phoenix sees the fowl with feathers that resemble her own that has been served as the main dish at the grand feast and you will be close to envisioning the utter horror experienced by our Tiefo confidant. Even at her age, she is a strong woman with short, white hair, and not rattled easily. She was literally shaking. We had to drag her away with failed explanations that it was only out of respect and that the fish were not real that she would allow us to leave.

Today, she returned back to tranquility of her village, but not without acquiring a great deal of my possessions. Good thing I have been 'training myself to let go of everything I fear to lose' as another tradition of this society is to give any item to a guest that she or he says she 'likes' (most languages even code this information into their structures as one word translates to 'like', 'want' and 'love'). She is now the proud owner of, literally, the shirt off my back, my tooth brush and tooth paste, my flashlight, soap, mirror...put it this way, the list is long.

'Thank you', she says as she leaves, 'may the big god (Allah) pay you, for I cannot.' I tell her, 'money cannot buy me language'. She shields her eyes as she begins the forbidden and shameful act of crying.

Nov. 1st, 2012

A day in the life

A lot of people ask what an average day is like for a Linguistic Fieldworker and I have written a lot about this topic in the village. Even though we are now in the city, there is still a lot to think about other than the daily elicitation and analysis sessions. Speaking a language is more than just learning about tone and word order. One has to understand the culture at an intimate level to truly communicate. Here are some recent anecdotes.

One of my informants has met the love of his life here in Burkina but he cannot marry her. It is not due to the fact that he has a wife (all of four years old) from an arranged marriage waiting for him in his village in Mali. He and his new love have both agreed that he will marry both wives, even though they are both Christian. When he returned to his village to tell his family and make arrangements, his mother forbid him from leaving because she feared he would never return. Real love may exist in so-called 'poor' or 'primitive' societies, but it is forbidden.

My chief refuses to rule over his village and thus will not return home to Mali. Since his wife died, he has not 'been given' a new one so he feels abandoned by the village. In retaliation, he has abandoned them.

Ansar Dine are the new white colonialists of Northern Mali. They just entered my former Peace Corps village to mediate a dispute between the Dogon and Fulani there. We had naively hoped they would leave the Dogon alone.

Our former cook and friend won't speak to us because she got another job. She feels we have betrayed her because we would not let her work the both jobs at the same time. Our new cook and friend's husband today forbade her from ever returning her and threatened to injure all of us because there are too many men in the house but every cook's job is to prepare for men who do not have wives or foreigners who do not know how to cook the local dishes. We plan to meet with his family tomorrow.

Saw a man yesterday who would appear to be crazy, but he was driving a moto. Evidently, he has not taken a shower in years as he believes there is a curse on him and if he showers, he will die. He is otherwise perfectly sane, has two wives, and a large house. If it were true, would you do the same?

One of my other informants, the one who had the mouth tumor removed, tells me last night he dislocated his shoulder during the workout today when he fell off the TRX, as all of often do. When I asked if we should go to the doctor, he looks at me like I am insane, and says he will pop it back in the morning.

Our chicken Matilda has layed 13 eggs and counting.

Now back to the dissertation. Wish me luck.

Sep. 23rd, 2012

reflections on life and love

Lying in the hospital, I am reading a book my friends who came to visit me left, it is the winner of all kinds of awards. Yet it is blah blah blah if you ask me and I bet you would agree. And although the book is disappointing, for I had high hopes that this book would shed light on the shadow that covers the faces of my loved ones, I do not blame the authors for the problem may not be one that can be understood in the manner in which it is being conceived.

First, the book never actually defines what it means to be 'poor'. In Africa, being considered 'poor' can mean living off the land, not using monetary currency, depending on God for rain to irrigate crops and on the knowledge of medicinal uses of plants and even animals. Knowing how to survive without the use of machines. Only using enough of the world to live, but not so much as to become fat, lazy, or bored. But, don't get me wrong, I am not trying to romanticize the difficulties of the village life.

Poverty in places like America means practically the opposite, yet the book does not even mention poor people who live in any 'developed' country. As you know all too well, poor people in America depend on cheap food which makes them sick and fat, which then leads to insurmountable medical costs and either the inability or the ignorance to exercise or eat properly in order to detangle themselves from the cycle.

I think that one problem is that the problem may not be a lack of money that is hindering the poor from prosperity. The book mainly focuses on poor people in semi-rural areas, as indicated by the fact that they say things like even the poorest village in Africa relies on power-generated grain grinders and no one pounds or hand grinds grain anymore. As you know from my pictures, writings, experiences, this is very far from the truth in two ways. One, many, many villages still cultivate endless hectares of grain fields by hand, harvest each individual gain spike by hand, and then women pound and grind the grains into powder, all by hand. Two, many villagers perform these tasks by hand by choice. They trust themselves more than they trust technology, and rightfully so in many cases as they see injuries, incorrectly fertilized or cultivated crops, and fields depleted of nutrients from overuse of chemicals. Many wise villagers understand that life is not meant to be sped up in the ways that others often recommend.

The book also discussed the 'odd' behaviors of the poor. Why on earth would someone with not enough money to feed his family go out and buy a satellite dish and a TV with his year's earnings? Were the authors never college students who could not afford rent yet went out on beer drinking binges? Did they never see any of their friends eating Ramen noodles every night while paying out the nose for a new computer they never even used? Instant gratification is not just a symptom of being poor.

However, a point the book does make is that poor people have a difficult time imagining the future. One's mind is so preoccupied with the present condition, whether it be pain, hunger, exhaustion, or imminent danger, that it is literally impossible to concentrate on anything but the present moment. This is also not merely a circumstance of being poor, but of living life in the world as it really is, sometimes in solitude, unplugged from distracting buffers such as media, music, pain-dulling medications, machines and substances to control the level of comfort in the atmosphere, or even mind-absorbing work that is not physically taxing. One of my Malian informants arrived here about a week ago yet he still cannot sleep on a mattress as it 'hurts his body all over'. It is as if a villager's feeling for 'soft' or 'comfortable' are reversed from our own.

Which leads me wonder if it is possible for a person in this type of circumstance to fall in love. What is the possible scope of emotions for a person in desperation? Is it any coincidence that most languages in this area have only one word for like, want, and love? Or, if it is possible for a person in these circumstances to separate their love for another person from the things they provide, provided that the person in question is in a position of ownership as we are. My chief left his village without telling his best friend that he was leaving for fear that his friend would be envious. Upon his return, he found that his friend had fallen extremely ill and almost died due to loneliness and hurt. From the time the two of them were born they have not been apart more than a few hours at a time. Nothing has ever separated them before and since money is not a currency of the remote village, and their lives were completely in parallel, their friendship was pure.

And even if one has money here, as in comparison, we do, what can one buy? In a country with more pain than probably anywhere on earth, morpheme is not available as it is considered a drug. So, I am left here with an IV drip of a cocktail consisting of muscle relaxers, steroids, Tylenol, and vitamin B. This is the same treatment for a slipped disc, malaria, or diarrhea. If money will not help the poor, then maybe the poor are not actually in poverty, although they are deprived. But of what? The rich have all the material wealth they need yet are deprived of happiness. The poor are lacking in objects but are often full of pure joy. Imagine, the rich even make themselves richer by writing books about poor people and then giving them money which solves none of their problems and thus more rich people come to study them and create wealth and careers on their backs. How can we, as researchers ourselves, extract ourselves from the pattern or is this merely another cycle of life?

Aug. 15th, 2012

Civilized Society is not found in Civilization

The Tao Te Ching extols the virtues of the village society. That for a population to truly evolve, they must revert to the ways of old. Today, the city is littered with trash, overpopulation, incurable illnesses, directionless skies, disorder and lawlessness. The village is spotless since villagers cannot afford to throw away their goods and they take pride in the collectively owned space. Villagers live by an extensive set of social regulations for interactions, working, bathing, eating, spiritual welfare; every part of village life is governed by specific rules that everyone knows and everyone follows. When a West African wakes up at dawn in the village, his body’s clock set to the earth’s rotation, she knows to wash her face before greeting. Upon returning from the latrine, water kettle held in the right hand with the spout turned away from her, he greets his wives and daughters who have been up since dawn preparing breakfast, turn by turn, patiently asking if each of them spent the night in peace. The young girl does the morning’s chores without having to be reminded, and sits with the other children who all eat together at breakfast, without complaint, even though they eat the same meal every day. After visiting the elders; from the chief and the shaman to the counsel, it is time for the men to go to the fields and the women to draw water, prepare lunch, and wash clothes and their children before also going to the fields. Every person in the village has a place, a purpose, a specific job to do. Whether it be herding, cultivating, hunting, leading, weaving, smelting, dying of fabrics, blessing, divining, healing, singing histories; every person is born with their life’s work plan.

To the individualized Westerner, the concept of a life’s work without a choice seems dreadful, but to a West African villager who puts the value of the village before his own needs, a purposeless life seems much more depressing. Indeed, there are young people who grow up in the village with a desire to see the rest of the world. Some leave the village for the city, some never return, their once determined fate lost among the sellers of cell phone credit or scrubbing floors. Some leave and are successful at the maze of the ‘modern world’. A Master’s degree student at the University of Ouagadougou, Aminata Ouattara, an ethnically Tyefo woman born to the city without the chance to learn her mother tongue, is now a linguist, travelling back in time to her ancestors village, Ginafongo, to record the few, aged speakers of her moribund language. Another Burkinabé linguist has gained funding to study the language yet he is nowhere to be found, thus Aminata has, with no grants, only the money and the knowledge her parents give her village protocol, began to record, transcribe, and analyze her own language, which she does not speak. “A people without a language!” the Tyefo are antagonized by other Burkinabé.

Since our Dogon and Bangime Languages Project has become refugees from Mali to Burkina, we have taken an interest in languages of the area. In the case of Tyefo, it is not only our interest but our responsibility as linguists to if not preserve, at least document, a dying language. Our knowledge of Malian protocol did not help so Aminata did. She led us to Ministers, the Bishop, the Mayor, the Museum Curator, a tomb of a Tyefo warrior, five different village chiefs, and finally the remote village of Nyafogo where we spent the night discussing with the elders if it would be alright for me to study the language, and then with whom I would work. There are no bribes among villagers, there is but protocol. If it had not been for Aminata, we would never had found the kindness that we did among the villagers. They so surprised us by suddenly offering one of their elder women, Dongui Ouattara, to accompany me to Bobo to stay in our house for a week and begin to work with me on Tyefo!

She is in fact lying next to me now, looking over my shoulder as I type this entry, and greets you all heartily. She is very nervous to be in the city, so we are keeping close together. Her first day here was yesterday, having spent the night on Monday, and I got up early to heat up water for her as she is not familiar with the shower, get breakfast, and traditional beer to calm her nerves. I felt proud of my efforts and familiarity with an elder villager’s needs. However, in the chaos of obtaining all these things early in the morning, I forgot to say good morning and offended her. The significance of morning greetings cannot be overstated as so many atrocities could have happened overnight in a village setting, the fact that one meets another day is sometimes nothing short of a miracle.

This morning, I made up for it by greeting her in Tyefo.

Jul. 11th, 2012

Lessons in laziness

Here comes a rant, y'all: my informant and I just returned from an appointment at the hospital in Bobo for a tumor in his mouth. Yes, selfishly, I need this problem resolved so that he will continue to be able to speak, but more so I wish for our Malian counterparts to have the same access to resources that we have. Unfortunately, this is a wish that may never come true. We had visited various doctors who all tell us to go to the hospital and that it requires surgery. We were skeptical of going to the hospital but had no other choice. The 7:00 appointment lasted four hours, none of which were spent actually accomplishing anything. While those of you who have spent any time in Africa are now shaking your heads at me asking why would I expect anything different from the '3rd world health care system', allow me at least to explain to those who aren't so familiar and those who would complain about the current situation in the US so that they might value what is there's to take for granted.

There are here those who say that a person who is ill or suffering is better off in the village with traditional medicine than in the city with 'modern' doctors and medical practices. Burkina Faso is in fact an otherwise well-run country, especially in comparison to the current situation in Mali. Hence why my hopes were high that we would be able to treat my dear friend's problem. We did even see a oral surgeon who was professional, had access to high quality medical equipment, took X-rays in minutes, charged us only a small consultation fee, but, sadly he was based in Ivory Coast. Today, we waited the four hours at the hospital for another series of X-rays and for four doctors to finish SMS-ing, chatting, wandering, and picking their friggin noses long enough to give a crap about the lines of Burkinabé who were humbling suffering without complaint as they baking in the soiled streets. No wonder people here are so fervently religious. What faith could they have left in their fellow man? Yet then it occurs to me as we finally entered the office that the hospital has no equipment, no money, barely even electricity, to say it resembles a scene out of one of the Saw movies would be giving it something. I could never subject a loved one to a surgical procedure there. My anger towards the doctors shifted as I realized that it was not simply their laziness and complacency that kept the sick in their state of exasperation. But who is to blame? My only comfort was that we could leave that prison of a hospital but that was fleeting as the thought of my friend's condition and those of the people around us which would not be solved by any amount of money, waiting, or arguing with hospital officials. All I can gain from this experience is that each one of us must strive to do the best we can, at every moment possible, for the moments we have of pristine health and courage are few yet our efforts or lack thereof impact more than to fulfill our own need of rest. Though we may be weary, there is always someone that much more weary so we must continue to put forth all our effort to do fulfill the purposes for which we were made and that will never happen by being lazy.

Jun. 27th, 2012

Don't have to live like a refugee and TRX community

The distributors of the TRX promote the concept of 'community fitness'. Here, in Burkina Faso, the TRX has brought us a community. From one day wondering into a neighbor's compound with the odd request tying a yellow band around one of their trees to swing, pull, and climb from, to a real community of friends in our workout, church, meals, and even our clothes, the Burkinabé sure are treating us right.


Our neighbors, the weavers who make cotton blankets and the tailors who sew their woven cotton into clothing, began by giving us trees with shade under which to exercise,
and are now providing us with beautiful fabrics to wear, delicious food to eat, and a church where we sing, dance, and worship together.


I happened to hear this song before I left the States, the Tom Petty song mentioned above, and was thinking of the lyrics. You all know by now that I struggle with the addiction of struggle, somehow purposely subjecting myself to difficult conditions. As many of you have even asked, I did feel a bit strange living in such relatively easy conditions since 'fleeing Mali', or as 'refugees' as we have been described by people here, since there are, in fact, many true refugees here.

Since I am just now getting over Typhoid Fever...yes, I got Typhoid Fever, yes, I am fine now, thanks to good ole Cipro, a precautionary dose of Malacur, and a bath in some boiled leaves from a nearby tree for the rash that has yet to go away, but is much better today...I realized how grateful I am for the safety, tranquility, and kindness that we are receiving here in Burkina Faso and that I will not take that for granted again. Plus, I missed my TRX workouts!!!

Jun. 17th, 2012

Fieldwork and field work

The time has come again to cultivate the fields for planting, thus it is also time to cultivate new knowledge of the secret speech of the Bangande. As with clearing the weeds and remains from last year’s harvest, fieldwork so far has consisted of clearing out all of the borrowings and misguided expressions from the Bangime dictionary. The Dogon are well known for their guarded ways and the Bangande (whether they be truly Dogon or not) are no exception. The chief of Bounou and a student from the village are here in Bobo fostering me with the tools to remove anything that will hinder the progress of the seeds which will soon be planted. Once sowed, the words will grow into a flowering dictionary and grammatical description unlike any other. The process is back-breaking and painstaking, but the harvest is sure to fill many a granary.
A naïve fieldworker might think that after three going on four years a language description would be complete. However, this is merely when we begin to scratch the surface. For every new piece of knowledge I gain, I also gain the realization of how little I know. Patterns invisible, multi-faceted constructions possible and indistinguishable meanings abound. It as if the language has a kinetic force of its own will that only native speakers grasp.
When patience begins to dwindle, I think of the worker in the field, of the weaver on his loom, of the market seller of peanuts, the amount of work that can be accomplished in just one minute on the TRX, and all the meticulous tasks in which people here engage; one seed, one stitch, one cent closer to success, and I remember my purpose which drives me to continue on.

Jun. 10th, 2012

The Value in Extremes

"But this [joy and peace] can be appreciated fully only by him who has suffered the tortures of hell and then been brought to heaven by Christ, the intercessor of man."

- The Way of a Pilgrim

Here in Burkina Faso, (the translation of the country’s name is ‘Land of the Upright People’ in a mix of Moore and Jula), we (11 Malians and 4 Americans - Jeff called the voyage from Mali Noah's Arc, and it's true, two speakers from each Dogon language, and the unicorn Bangime) in the city of Bobo-Dioullso, (a combination of the names of the languages Bobo and Jula). It is quite a lovely city; I visited here a long time ago along my travels across W. Africa during Peace Corps and remembered it fondly. We live in a beautiful villa, surrounded by bougenvillas and smiles. I love African smiles. So broad and bright and true. Many Africans I have seen are not so quick to smile, more reserved than us, but just by a greeting in their language or a wave, their faces light up. Someone said to me before I left that I am so close with people here because I understand suffering. I felt like that was such a wonderful explanation for why God would allow suffering and would encourage my roads and relationships with people here. I feel that if not for people’s extreme pain and suffering, they would not be able to be so genuinely happy. Not that I think suffering is necessary for a happy life, but that since suffering is a product of the evil in this world, it certainly gives one a basis from which to compare things. Because of the hardships, the simplest things do make me very happy here too. Flowers, a cool breeze, an unexpected kind word or gesture, even just the ability to talk to anyone. The friendliness and non-judgmental character of people here is beyond measure.

Although I did very much enjoy the time of pure integration in Bounou and solely living among Malians during my last excursion to Mali, this time it is very relaxing to be around other Americans, and to not worry about making the long treks back and forth to the village, let alone the difficulties of living there. You all know how much I adore living atop my rock in Bounou, but I must admit that life in the city is very simple and comfortable, not to mention the ability to converse with people who speak my same language and understand any of my frustrations without an explanation.

I do have one concern with which I would like to inquire your advice: As this is my fourth year working with the speakers of Bangime, I should very much like to give them something more sustainable than merely payment for their services. They have shown such dedication in leaving their village, especially the chief, to come here to work at the start of the planting season, and I want so much for them to know the impact their contribution will have on the academic community. I know they will appreciate the interest people have in their fascinating and unique language and culture, but how to truly show them this impact in a way they will understand? When one worries day to day if there will be sufficient rain fall in order to feed an entire village, and the locusts will not come and destroy all their crops, how can they fully appreciate the abstract implications of a dissertation on tonal phenomena and a grammatical description of a language isolate? Is there a way to help them meet their day to day needs so that they can appreciate the impact of their work?

May. 31st, 2012

Details matter

When most people think about living in ‘developing nations’ like Mali or Burkina Faso, they think about how people in places like America take small positive things for granted. Actually, I realized today, it is possible to take hardship for granted as well. The human body and mind’s ability to become accustomed to even the most difficult circumstances never ceases to amaze me.

In Mali, after the plane journey to Bamako, I take for granted that a bus ride will take a minimum of 18 hours and a maximum of two days, usually the latter, to reach Douentza. It breaks down, we spend the night in the sand on the side of road, we wait for parts to come and then for it to be fixed and leave sometime the next day. Naturally, then, I expect the bus from Ouaga to Bobo to have no AC, windows that don’t roll down, and the driver to blast loud music. It will be no surprise when, though the bus is full by the time it leaves the station, it stops continuously until the aisles are also full of luggage and people sitting on gas jugs filled with water. There will be goats on the roof which will leak because it has holes through the ceiling. A baby will inevitably end up on my lap, crying and screaming the whole way.

When we finally reach our destination, there will be children swarming, calling us names and asking for presents. We will sleep on the roof and a sandstorm will awaken us in the middle of the night. The next morning, we will wait for a minimum of four hours for a bus to fill up or for someone to have pity on us and pick us up. We travel to the stop for our village, then walk the rest of the day in temperatures up to 130 degrees, sleep in a village at the base of the cliff, and climb it the next morning. That is fieldwork. That is what I expect so I do not consider or judge it as difficult anymore, it simply is the way it is.

I have visited other West African countries with different degrees of hardship, but since my work is in Mali, I did not stop to compare our circumstances. I simply anticipated the above journey because that is what I have come to know. It was only after entering an air conditioned bus with assigned seats, which left on time, arrived on time, and dropped us to a 4 x 4 waiting to take us to a villa in a quiet, secluded, tree-lined neighborhood in Bobo-Dioulasso (which has an average temperature of around 80 this time of year) where a group of Malians, speakers of various languages awaited us, that I realized how hard we had it in Mali. It makes me wonder how the Malians feel about the situation. I’ll ask the chief and write that for the next entry so stay tuned!

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