All of us here at GMin have been doing our best to learn Mende, the local language in the Malen chiefdom and predominantly in the Southern and Eastern regions of Sierra Leone. As is our custom, we’ve developed a guide to help future GMin generations follow our lingual lead. As is also our custom, we’ve named this guide after ourselves. Here, now, for an unlimited time, we offer you, our faithful readers, a sneak peak at GMende: 5 Ways To Rock The Talk.
1. When in doubt, say Kayi Goma. If you’re lazy, you can have thousands of complete conversations in Malen simply by learning the formula of the four-phrase greeting:
Person 1: Bu waa. [Hello (literally: you’ve come.] Person 2: Bi sieh. [Thank you.] Person 1: Kahunyena? [How is your health?] Person 2: Kayi Goma. [Praise God (I am healthy).]
As a newcomer, almost all of the conversations you will have in Malen will begin with these four phrases. And almost all of them will end after these four phrases, too: the local you are talking to will either be so impressed or so amused with your attempt to greet that they’ll laugh and wave you on. In other, more dangerous cases, they’ll actually think you know how to speak their language, causing them to ask you a long, complex question in Mende and then smile, waiting expectantly for your answer. This is a code red. But remain calm: there’s a way out. If you only have the greeting formula under your belt, your best shot is to say Kayi Goma. Some of the time, this is actually the correct response, and the rest of the time, everyone just laughs at you: it’s hard to offend someone while praising their God. So in summary, you can get by on Kayi Goma. But if you really want to be a hardcore Malen explorer, you’re going to need to play the name game.
2. Nya biye mia a poomuin. One of the first things a local will ask you after you greet them is “Bi lay?” or “Bi biye?” [What is your name?]. The correct response is “Nya biye mia a… (insert your name here).” It’s then of course polite to ask their name in return. Easy, right? Now you’re all set––when talking to adults.
Kids are a different story. If you happen to be white, from the moment you get into Malen, you will have a new name: poomuin [overseas person]. Kids everywhere skip the Bu waa/Biseh shenanigans and yell poomuin when they see you, both as a greeting and as an alarm call to their friends that something totally weird is walking by. Though this may not be the kind of conversation you’re used to, there are two ways to come through it with flying colors. Either: 1) point right back at the kids and shout, “Mendemuin!” [Mende person]; or 2) look around you excitedly, searching behind nearby bushes, and say, “A poomuin!? A ta!?” [Where’s the white guy!? Where is he!]. Even when they don’t get the joke, you will have their startled, undivided attention. This brings us to our next point:
3. Practice on the dopomoomuissia [kids]. The rug rats in Malen are one of your most valuable language resources, namely because they will not get bored of you. Whether through incredible patience or insatiable curiosity, kids will only nod in approval when, after long minutes of struggle, you point at them and successfully say, “You are wearing clothes! You are all wearing clothes!” [“ndominsiaa wu ma!”]
Practicing on kids is also helpful because learning Mende is not without risk. For example, I found out the hard way that there is an imperceptible difference in pronunciation between “Bu yay yi”? [How did you sleep?] and “Bu yeh yi” [“Look at your abject condition”]. Whereas a kid might laugh at being told his appearance disgusted me, David’s aunt was less than pleased.
4. Make mistakes. Though there’s the tiny possibility of accidentally insulting someone while learning Mende, there’s nothing you can say that can’t be smoothed over later with the help of an English-speaking local and an apologetic “Nga mende yey lelo kloklo” [“I only speak Mende a little bit.”] The worst thing you can do is keep your mouth shut for fear of making a mistake: it closes you off from the people you have come to meet and work with, limiting your experience and theirs. A packed-to-the-gills poda-poda [van] can be filled with silent strangers, or it can be filled with a 20-person cheering section when you flex your arms and say, in a gruff voice, “Hindui mia a ge!” [I am a man!”]. Seeing a father and son hurrying along the trail from Kpombu to Sahn, you can keep quiet and never know their story, or you can struggle through a greeting and hear the pride and excitement in the father’s voice as he explains that his son has passed into grade five and will receive one of the XO laptops. During net distribution, you can ask all the questions in English and have a Red Cross volunteer translate, or you can fight your way through “Dopuissia tu loleh ti ya gui a fo lolu?” [“How many children do you have under five?”]. It may take a few attempts before they understand and begin to count out loud, but they will become more than a name on a list, you will become more than a silent poomuin, and you will share something more than the exchange of a net.
5. There is always more to learn. If you risk using your Mende, you’ll soon surprise yourself with what you can say. You may also be surprised at how you say what you say: many daily phrases in Mende are composed of short, vibrant stories that enrich your experience of Malen if you give them some thought. When you are happy, you say “Nya gohun nehgo,” which means, literally, “Inside my stomach is sweet.” The word for “clothes”––“ndomi“––is only one “i” away from “ndomii”––love. Hunger, too, is something you wear: dole lo nya ma [hunger is on me]. And the verb “to be” is the same as the verb “to see” [lo].
If this is all a bit too poetic for you, there are plenty of more practical topics to think about during Mende lessons. I learned one of my most important phrases while walking down a narrow trail through the bush: “Kaligaa,” Moinina said casually, waving his arm all around us. [“There are snakes everywhere.”]