Tag Archives: African proverbs

Liberian proverbs, Ajami, and courteous interruptions

My colleague Jason Margolis recently went to Liberia to report a few stories for The World. While he was there, he spent some time with his childhood buddy Jason Hepps, who has lived and worked in Liberia for five years. Long story short, the two Jasons  found themselves judging a Liberian proverb competition.

Liberian English and its cousin Liberian Kreyol are littered with pithy sayings. Most of them, though,  are as incomprehensible as badly translated Chinese fortunes. For example:  Your child cannot poo poo on your lap, and you cut your legs off, you just have to clean them off.  Or: If one keeps pressing a young bird in his palms, the bird may one day stooled in his hands. So, on the face of it, lots of toilet humor. But the meanings of many of these sayings aren’t intended to be  funny. Several include refererences to Liberia’s civil war and refugee camps. Jason’s report centers around the night when he and his fellow Jason — with plenty of help from local experts — picked the best proverb.

Is this script a language? Yes and no. The writing system is Arabic. But the language isn’t. In this case, it’s Mandinka, one of many African languages that often use Arabic script. In fact, these languages have borrowed Arabic script  for more than a thousand years. What’s interesting though, is that Ajami has been overlooked by most historians;  African history has been told through the lens of  English, French or Arabic documents. Also, because Ajami isn’t a language, Africans who used it were often classified as illiterate, even though they were quite capable of writing sentences of Mandinka or Hausa or Wolof. Now Ajami is getting a bit more respect, thanks to people like Fallou Ngom of Boston University and Dmitry Bondarev of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Every year, 4,000 staffers at the United Nations in New York sign up for language classes. There, they learn not just how to say things in other  languages but how to say them diplomatically. Which can mean being clear, or being extremely unclear, depending on what’s required.  That takes practise, as does learning how to interrupt and assert yourself without being rude. Most of us have trouble with that in our mother tongues.

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