Tag Archives: language

Interpreting Interpretation

I often get asked about what my work was like in America. Seeing as how my work here is agriculture, they typically want to know about my experience and qualifications. This is completely valid. This is also probably why Peace Corps urged me to get more agricultural experience under my belt before going into Peace Corps as an Agricultural Extension Agent. It would have probably been a really great idea to do that. But, alas, Park Service pays much better than working for free on someone else’s farm. Not to mention how much I LOVE Park Service work. The 9-month wait for my Peace Corps Senegal service to begin timed perfectly to allow for a summer season (May-Sept).

There are National Parks here in Senegal, but they are typically known as places where they keep the wild animals away from the people and vice versa. Or, usually just referred to as, ‘the trees.’ The idea of working in them is not usually considered, especially where I live. The National Park is in the south, near Kedougou and Kolda region – very far away. So I was describing myself as an eaux et foret agent (the government forestry agents in charge of the distribution and protection of trees) because it was the closest comparison I could think of that they would be able to relate to.

Then the other day I started to realize I could better explain the role of Interpretation, now that my language abilities have greatly improved. I was talking to people now about Interpretation in the Park Service and how being able to interpret the resources to visitors is important so that they will hold the resource in their hearts and be able to feel their importance. If they love something, like a tree, they would see it for more than just cooking wood.

Park Service Interpretation as defined by NPS: “When most people hear the word interpreter, they think of someone who translates the meaning of one language into another. In a museum, zoo, or park setting, interpreters “translate” the meanings of artifacts, collections, events, and physical resources into a language that helps visitors understand these resources.”

I decided to give my friend a more in depth example the other day. This friend happens to speak English so I was able to extrapolate more than I would be able to in Pulaar. Here’s what I came up with as an example of an Interpretation program I would present about the Fouta.

The Land of the Fouta

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The Fouta region of Senegal is the southern part of the Sahel Desert. It is primarily sand with scattered trees. This land is like the people who live on it. The sand itself came from other places, long, long ago. It came from Egypt, it came from Mauritania, it came from Mali, Morocco. So did the humans, migrating and traveling, herding their cattle and livestock from place to place, setting up shelter wherever they were. So does the sand. This Fouta sand arrived and stayed here a while. Trees grew and held the sand in place. So, too, did the people take root. Herders began farming, putting physical roots in the ground, like the trees. Then, the Fouta was a fertile place. A beautiful place. The rains brought seasons of plenty. The hot summers were shorter and not too hot to grow abundant vegetables along with staples such as sorghum, corn, and millet. The trees brought the people, enticed by the shade and fertile ground. The trees rooted the people to the earth.

The trees became useful to the inhabitants of the Fouta. The people used the wood from the trees for building, for cooking, for transport. Over the years, the trees have been chopped over and over. That which was once abundant has since ceased to be. With the cutting of trees, the sand storms began. Every year they increase, causing more erosion of topsoil (what little there was) and more dangers to humans caught in these storms. The more the trees are cut, the hotter the Fouta gets. Every year temps increase making living, farming, working, really everything less bearable.

The sand, no longer held by the roots of these trees, is leaving; taking with it people. Those smartest and hardest working are leaving to find better opportunities. Better living conditions. The culture of the Fouta is changing. The people are losing their culture. Losing their ties to the earth. More and more of their money comes from abroad. Less and less can be provided by agriculture, due to heat and lack of rain. The youth are adapting Western culture, Western dress. There are still cultural celebrations, but they become lessened and overshadowed by the desire to ‘be like the Americans/French’. As the trees continue to decrease, so does the esteem and appreciation of the culture, the roots.


Without trees, the Fouta has no life; no culture; no people. It is trees that provide the stability of life. It is deforestation that is causing this gradual loss.

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Intro to Pulaar Language

Introduction to Pulaar (Tukelleur).

First and foremost, greetings are the MOST important part of the language and culture of Senegal.

A)   Asalaam Maalekum                                    Standard Senegalese Greeting (Say this to everyone

B)   Maalekum Saalam

A)   No mbaad daa?                                    How are you?

B)   Jam tan                                                Peace Only

A) Ada selli?                        Are you well?

B) Maldoum                        Fine

A) No mbaadu-daa e tampere?            How are you doing with tiredness?

B) Jam tan                              Peace only

A) No mbaadu-daa e nguleki?            How are you doing with the heat?

B) Jam tan (walla ina wooly)            Peace only (or it is hot)

A) No galle maa wadi?                  How is your house?

B) Ebbe e jam                        They are in peace

And this goes on, asking about different aspects of the family, the day, etc.  (Pronunciation note: double vowels are said as elongated sounds, so ee is pronounced more like a longer ‘eh’ and aa is a longer ‘ah’, oo is a longer ‘oh’, etc.) There are different greetings for different times of the day as well.  Most are answered by ‘Jam tan’.


Wallen e jam?                         Did you spend your night in peace?

A daanima no moyya?                   Did you sleep well?

A) A finni?                              Did you wake up? (this is representative of a nation with a high death rate, this is a real question)

B) Eey, mi finni                        Yes, I woke up


Nallen e jam?                        Have you passed the day in peace?


Hiiren e jam                        Have you passed the later part of the day in peace?

Wallen e jam                        Pass the night in peace.

Other vocab

Eey                              Yes

Alaa                              No (not to be confused with Allah – god)


This is where this language becomes the most difficult and intricate of all of the Pulaar dialects, at least in Senegal.  Similar to other Latin-based languages I have learned, there is the basic structure of pronouns: Me, you, he/she/it, we (inclusive and exclusive), you plural, and they.  The beginning of a verb will change depending on if it is singular or plural.  The end of the verb will change depending on if it is present/past/conditional/etc.  The ending of the verb also changed depending on if it is in the first group – direct action, second group – semi active, or third group – indirect or passive action.  The root (middle) of the verb is the only way to distinguish really what is being said.  And even that can change… 

Here are some nouns

First group verbs (direct action verbs)

Yahde                              To go (Root- Yah-)

Yarde                              To drink (Root – Yar-)

Finde                              To wake up

Anndude                              To know

Windude                              To write

Second group (semi-active)

Jogaade                              To have

Joodaade                              To sit

Daanaade                              To sleep

Third group

Walleede                              To be helped

Nodeede                              To be called (phone)

Toppiteede                        To be taken care of


Yahde –                                                             to go

Mi yahat                                                             I go (present or future)

Aa yahii                                                            You went (past)

O yahatno                                                            He was going (often in the past)

Min/En njahat                                                We (inclusive/exclusive) go (present)

On njahii                                                            You all went (past)

Be njahatno                                                            They were going (often in the past)

If these are in a question, the Me, A, En, and On forms get switched around (pronoun after the verb) and the first consonant changes. 

A- changes to ng (amde – to dance, changes to Be ngamat – they dance)

F- changes to p (finde – to wake up, changes to Min pinnii – we woke up)

H- changes to K (Hokkude – to give, changes to On kokkat – you guys give)

J- changes to nj (joodaade – to sit, changes to Be njoodima – they sat)

Wa- changes to mb (walleede – to be helped, changes to En mballete – we were helped)



It goes on from there.  Most letters change except B, L, and the funny letters that I don’t have on my keyboard so I can’t show them)

To make something negative, like, ‘I did not go’, you change the ending to the negative ending.  Mi yahii – I went.  Mi Yahaani – I did not go.  These are the past tense options.  Present/future also has different affirmative and negative endings.  

And this is just the beginning.  If you want to say something about how you did something, or that you went to do something, or that you do something with someone, you add letters after the root but before the ending. 

Interesting language notes

‘I want’ and ‘I like’ are the same phrase.

To drive or to ride a bike or any other form of transportation, you use the verb for ‘to run’ and change it to mean ‘to make run’ and then add whatever it is that you are making run, be it car, bike, etc. 

Never say ‘that’s not true’, which essentially accuses someone of being a liar.  There are many ways to beat around the bush by saying, ‘I don’t think so’ or ‘I disagree’. 

Greetings are always answered as ‘fine’ or ‘peace only’.  No one actually talks about hardships if they are having them.  Bad things are brushed aside, not acknowledged.  It is almost shameful to talk about difficulties. 


If you make plans to do something or say you are going to do something, always add ‘Inshallah’ – god willing, or ‘Si Alaah jabbii’ – if god agrees.  Nothing is for sure and they don’t want to jinx anything, so if anything is said to be happening in the future, it is always unsure.  This comes from a history of the outcomes of things being unsure and things not always working out as planned.  Even ‘until tomorrow’ a common evening goodnight phrase, is followed by ‘Inshallah’.  People historically haven’t made it through the night.  It is with god’s willing that that person wakes up the next day.  Americans often get frustrated at this phrase, however, because it can seem like an evasive tool to get out of doing work.  Senegalese people never say no.  They will always accept invitations, agree to work with you, but they don’t always mean it necessarily.  It is just rude to turn something down outright.  So many times, when making meetings or plans, the promise will follow with “Inshallah’, and, consequently, that person might not show up.  It may or may not have anything to do with the word.  It could just be the culture of not turning down invitations or requests, but nevertheless ‘Inshallah’ is an interesting aspect of the culture.  Defining both the history of life and it’s uncertainties in the African regions, but also of the lax pace of life as it stands presently.  Things may or may not get done.  People may or may not show up to meetings or work.  Tea must be made multiple times a day (can take over an hour).  Prayers must be said 5 times a day.  It is an interesting culture.  This one word embodies so much of it.