Thursday, July 19, 2012

July 19 - Mental Math in the Marketplace, and Other Quirks of the Bariba Language

In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned that I’m spending the first several weeks of Peace Corps Training here in Porto Novo learning Bariba, a language spoken in Northwestern Benin. I and my classmate (another EA volunteer) are two weeks into our Bariba-learning adventure now. It’s intense – most days we have language class from 8:00-12:30 and again from 1:30-5:00, with one half-hour break in both the morning and the afternoon. Some of the time is also spent learning about cross-cultural topics.

We started with greetings. This sounds like a simple enough topic, something that could probably be covered with the equivalent of “Hello, how are you?” But greetings are very, very important in Benin, even more so in the North than in the South. When I told my host father that I was learning Bariba, he said that up north I could expect to spend up to half an hour greeting someone else. Accordingly, we have learned a plethora of greetings for every occasion. There are the usual “good morning, good afternoon” ones, of course, but here are some of the more unique greetings that I’ve enjoyed:

KaKokoru – To greet someone who has just taken a shower

KaGura – To greet someone who is wet because of the rain

KaSuru – To thank someone from their patience, or to encourage someone to be patient when they’re faced with a difficult situation

After greetings, we learned how to introduce ourselves and talk about our families. And now, we’re working on vocabulary and expressions to use at the market. This includes numbers and currency. The numbers themselves are easy enough, although I’m still working on memorizing them. But in order purchase something that costs 200 francs, for example, it isn’t enough to know the number 200. Bariba has a word, “dala,” for 5 francs, and prices are discussed in terms of dala. The word for 200 is “goobu”, but if I want to talk about 200 francs I need to say “dalaweru,” or “5 times 40.” This means that, for the next two years, my grocery shopping will go something like this:

Bethany Approaches a Woman Selling Fruit

Bethany: Nye agede wokuru doramo? (How much for 10 bananas?)

Woman: Dalawata ka wokuru.

Bethany thinking: Hmm, “watakawokuru”, that means 70. So 5 x 70, that’s 350 francs. That’s too much! I want to pay 200 francs. So I need to offer less – I’ll offer 150 francs. 150, that’s 5 x 30. What was 30 again? That’s right, “tena.”

Bethany: Ya gobi kua too. Ko dalatena wi. (That’s too expensive. I’ll pay 150 francs)

And so on and so forth… I’ll keep you updated when I actually put all this in practice, but I’m anticipating a lot of long pauses as I do math in my head. And probably some silly mistakes as well. At least I’ll be able to amuse the vendors with my bumbling attempts at bargaining in Bariba!

At this point, I still don’t know for certain that I’ll be going to a Bariba community – although it’s likely, since this is the language Peace Corps chose for me to learn. I could, however, be in a community that speaks a smaller language in the larger Bariba region, or somewhere else altogether. Permanent site assignments will be announced in about one week!

N’kua N’sosi! (Until next time!)


  1. Wow! How fascinating! I haven't yet had to grapple with converting currency and doing simple (or at times, perhaps verging on not-so simple) math, all the while traversing between languages! I wish you the very best of luck, Bethany, and I love reading your posts!

  2. Hi,Bethany!
    Yours is the first blog I have ever followed.... but I have to say that you are such an entertaining writer and I look forward to each new episode of "Life in Benin".