“Where is the donkey cart?”

When I moved to Africa, I tried to leave my biases and expectations in America. Sometimes I feel as though I’ve stepped so far outside myself, I’m rarely surprised at what goes on around me. When everything is foreign, it’s easy to forget what you know and just go with it because “that’s the way it is here.”

Perhaps the only place that seems semi-normal is my classroom, where I am learning the local language, Jola.

Hawa, my local Jola teacher

Hawa, my local Jola teacher

I say “semi-normal” because the classroom is the porch outside my teacher’s house. Goats wander in through the compound gate and we are often interrupted when they knock over water buckets in a big ka-bang. Children sometimes stop their usual games to stare at us “toubabs.” A beggar once wouldn’t leave until our teacher surrendered her coins. Learning a language is familiar, but my classroom is only semi-normal.

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Goat!

I sometimes don’t even realize how ridiculous the setting is until the familiar learning part is also turned upside-down.

Think of a foreign language class you’ve attended. Did you happen to learn how to say: “Where is the donkey cart?” in your list of useful phrases? What about: “How many wives does your father have?”

Kids proudly showing off their donkey cart, a legitimate means of transportation here.

Kids proudly showing off their donkey cart, a legitimate means of transportation here.

It’s moments like these that bring back my perspective and remind me where I am — on a porch in a polygamous compound, trying to learn a tribal language over the baa-ing goats and clucking chickens.

–JDF