Forgotten Languages, Invisible Fishermen, And A Job That Just Needs To Get Done.

Our Africa affair began in 1993, when we were challenged to consider working in Ivory Coast by a seasoned international worker, who had also recruited a school buddy of mine as well. It took my wife and I two years to prepare and then we arrived in Ivory Coast in 1995. The stories about our Ivory Coast years might get told some day, but for now I will stick to the more recent. The Mali story begins over a decade before in Ivory Coast.

Within months of our Ivory Coast (Cote D’Ivoire) arrival in 1995, I heard an interesting, no, actually, a very intriguing story about a linguist in Mali. He did something extraordinary in this modern age of linguistics, something that, from my perspective, must be a career highlight for a linguist. The incident took place a few years before in 1993.

In the multiple renditions I heard from various people, no one ever really knew where in Mali it took place, and I don’t ever recall actually hearing the name of the ethnic group or language involved, both facts were lost in the recounting. However, leaving out these details in no way diminished the intriguing nature of the encounter that the story unfolded.

We arrived in Ivory Coast with three kids in tow, the youngest was eighteen months old. We had never been to any part of Africa before, but arrived sight unseen, with a five year commitment to the work.

Most people thought we were nuts. We were often advised by the uninitiated that we should go and check the place out first. See if we “like the place”. Really?

We were not going to Ivory Coast for our comfort nor some personal adventure, though it turned out to be one heck of an adventure, one I hope to tell some day. Rather, we were going to a region that needed workers. and had been overlooked by most other agencies. We were going to respond to the people needs of the area. Not for some easy Africa adventure, if proving difficult, that we would walk away from, thoughtlessly leaving local people hanging. Difficult or not, we were going to stay for five years. We felt we would just work through life there as it unfolded for us.

It might have been perceived as naive by many back home. However, looking back now, I would never change what we did, and I would even encourage others to simply go as well.

This whole idea of going for a “look see” seems silly to us. First off, we never had the budget for a sight seeing trip to Africa. Second, a sight seeing tour diverts budget away from the people who need serving through the local work.

What are we going to go look at? It will be hot, dusty, stores will be dismal, the power will go out, water will get cut, it takes much more time to get things done, The house will not be fancy, things will be expensive, there are bugs and malaria, language is hard, the culture is different, The fruit and fresh veggies are great, some local food is wonderful and cheap, others not so tasty, most people are wonderful, a few are impossible, and we will have to adjust. There you have it, everything you need to know about any place in Africa, Asia and beyond. Did we have to go over there to learn all this?  What kind of house, stores, or places to eat are there? Are there other expats around for us to hang out with? Are there other families with children for my kids to play with? Most of this stuff can be found out in minutes from home. An email conversation with a few in country families, and a morning spent in Internet searches and you will have all of this figured out. But, this is not the important stuff. It’s easy for any of us to make a value judgment based on our comfort and selfish whims, instead of the great need of the local people and our commitment to love and serve them deeply.  I do this far too often myself. Come, stay a long while, and figure it out. Most can do it. What I am really suggesting is that we stop making it more complicated than it really is. Just go, because, I assure you that after a year you will look back and laugh. Truth is you never know how you will assimilate until you get there. It’s never what we think it is from the outside looking. Standing there or not.

Africa is amazing most days. Africa can also be hard some days, Period! But, you soon discover we are immersed among a beautiful local people who love and adopt you, and look out for you too. Stores and expats are not our main comfort and strength, the local people are. The truth is that we discovered something living in Ivory Coast, that  it is nothing like we imagined anyway. The difficult stuff was not nearly as challenging as one first thinks from the western pedestal.

So, we settled in to life and work, and then we heard a story.

A linguist named “Lee” had discovered a new language dialect in Mali, one that had not ever been cataloged. This is unheard of in the modern world of linguistics, where it was believed every language and dialect was identified. However, we now know that among the Samogho people of South Eastern Mali that there are three dialects, previously only two were identified…..that is until 1993. The Jo, and the Duungooma were cataloged. However, as the story was told to me (And this could be way off base) was that while in the Sikasso area with some Duungoma people, Lee heard someone at the market speaking something that was similar to Duungoma, but still distinctly different. He asked the men around him about it, and he discovered that the dialect, called “Bankagooma (Banka) was spoken by a small cluster of villages, and they were considered Samogho people. There was a third unique dialect in the Samogho language. The people were located North East of Sikasso, near the border with Burkina Faso, an estimated the population of anywhere between 7000 – 15,000 speakers. Working among them now, my opinion is there are much fewer than 10,000, maybe even as few as 5000 Banka speakers.

Sadly, I have to say Bankagooma is a disappearing language. One Banka village has even abandoned it’s mother tongue of Bankagooma, and have assimilated the Bambara language. In the village of Niaradougou, the only people who still speak Bankagooma is the ancient chief (He looks 120 yrs old) and one other elderly gentleman.

Wow, what a story. It peaked my interest even then, in 1995, and I ever forgot that story. It stuck with me like glue for over a decade
After working in Ivory Coast we turned our work over to another agency and in 2000, we went home. It was a hard transition back to life in Canada. One I never really fully made.

However, in 2003, after a gracious invitation by the new workers in our old stomping grounds, I began returning to Ivory coast, and did many more times since. I knew that one day I would be back in Africa, I had to, or something, some small but very important piece inside of me would die.

So in 2005 my wife and I made the decision that we would return to Africa in five years. Where would we work? The search began. We remembered a story.

My mentor, Lew Cass, a half native Indian from Albuquerque New Mexico, who happened to marry A Canadian girl from Prince Edward Island, had a real pioneer heart. “Just go work where no one else will.”, he said. The emptier the spot, the more he liked it. I often light heatedly called Lew “Captain Kirk” from time to time, to a utter lack of comprehension on his part after living internationally for over forty years. That just made it even more hilarious. You know, “Going where no man has gone before!” Before Lew died of cancer, he sowed that small seed in us too, and it grew.

So we began looking at countries and regions all over west Africa. I knew we wanted to stay in French West Africa, go North to the Sahel regions, and work where no one else was working.  The Mali story from a decade before was still in my mind. Is anyone working with the Bankagooma I wondered?

In 2006, after a four week work stay in Ivory Coast, I went north to Mali to find the Banka villages, to ask their Chiefs if they would let us come and live and work with them. They said yes!

I felt very small about then, overwhelmed at the thought of being the first workers out there with the Bankagooma. But the truth is that on that day I realized that this would be the hardest thing I have ever undertaken in Africa.

I swallowed the huge lump in my thought as I replied, “Then my wife and I will be back in five years. I’m going home to prepare.”

I flew home, told my wife the whole story, and that is how the journey to Mali began. This former international worker, now simple obscure fisherman, invisible to most, was about to undertake development work among a people speaking an “almost” forgotten language.

I often wish I had more time with Lew Cass. I wish he could see the results of the seeds he sowed in us.

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