The multi-lingual capabilities of Gambians and their ability to flip between languages in mid-sentence is breath-taking. I sometimes wonder how they decide which words to speak in English, which in French, Wolof, or their own tribal language? Is it the shortest word or expression; the most emphatic? Some exchanges sound formulaic they bat back and forth so quickly. Much conversation sounds argumentative, there is a lot of shouting and talking over each other once the long niceties of daily greetings are over.
I like to pick up a few words, but haven’t got much beyond ‘Salaam malekum’/’malekum salaam’ in greeting, ‘toubab’ (white person) and ‘minty’(sweets): the perennial chant of the children tagging along behind us. However, I did discover a new expression last weekend ‘turinga’: Gambian hospitality. I was confronted by stall holders at the Art Fair demanding free food and was taken aback; we were not charging a fee for their stall, nor asking for commission on sales, to help get some momentum behind the concept. So what the hell was free food about? ‘Turinga’ it seems – it is considered rude not to offer guests some form of hospitality. I explained my hospitality was providing a table, chair, advertising and the chance to earn themselves some sales. Everyone backed off with a friendly ‘wow’.
Now I have noticed myself saying ‘wow’ a lot here, mainly because I hear it so frequently. Today I discovered that it is ‘waaw’: Wolof for ‘yes’; no wonder I have picked up the word and use it, but without knowing to what I am agreeing! I wonder if this sort of misunderstanding happens more frequently when languages are mixed and is in part responsible for the lack of communication in The Gambia. Communication skills are very poor: people talk all day long, often into two different phones at the same time, but many subjects are off limits: walls have ears, and there is little sense of communication as an EXCHANGE.
Waaw, waaw, waaw.