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.

Listen in iTunes or here.


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3 responses to “Liberian proverbs, Ajami, and courteous interruptions

  1. Mai Huynh

    i like this podcast a lot because it is very useful and i have learned some interesting and new technology today. even though the robot does the job miner is still in progress and researching due to the costs and the difficult of miner environment, there are some promise. i think we should work on this, and if we are successful, it would be wonderful because we can reduce the miner accidents and save miners’ lives. on future self navigating car, i think it would be intelligent car and actually, it will bring to people a lot benefits. however, machine is still machine. i would like to drive by myself and have somebody drive on the car next to me. we can invent some computer chips to improve the car. internet eyes and cell phone towers are very good ideas. they not only help us to prevent crime but also benefit medical field and individual health. finally there are water soluble chewing gum now(Rev7) which are removed easily from many surfaces with water and soaps. it will help our environment a lot. we should test it carefully to make sure there are no effects on humans’ health.
    Mai Huynh
    pr Tirpak

  2. Patch McLaughlin

    I am a student at Northern Virginia Community College.

    Yet another great podcast.

    Here is my question. Ajami is a form of writing that large groups of Africans use. They are using it everyday. They are recording history and events with it. They are even writing poetry! So why is this script not incorporated into the work place or adopted as another legitimate form of script with in the local governments? Or even taught in schools? If this script became widely recognized in the area wouldn’t that automatically qualify thousands of individuals who are otherwise un-qualified in many job fields? Like it was mentioned in the podcast, a certin percentage of the population is illiterate. But as it turns out, that number is much lower. This region has another script. Us it. They are not illiterate they just use a different script.

    James McLaughlin

  3. Elle Simon

    This is in interesting yet great podcast.

    I enjoyed reading the two Jason’s story to Liberia.
    My question is, why won’t the people in Africa write a script or a brief script of the alphabet or some words that Ajami speakers can use. I understand Arabic is a widely known language in the world, but a new script of language can be hard to produce, but why not start it now than never?!

    Elle Simon
    NVCC Student
    CST 229-Tirpak

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