8.   Un, Deux, Trois

By Paul Vanderveen

Copyright © 2003 by Paul Vanderveen

"UN, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit...," I would set off on my daily walks to the ocean cliffs, learning to count in French, interrupting my cadence to say, "Bonjour," to an occasional friendly guard. If I was going to continue to improve my repertoire in dealing with beggars, peddlers and guides, I needed to learn the local language. Besides, I needed to know how to count in order to negotiate when buying things, since everything from a cab ride to material for clothes was negotiable.
     "In Senegal, we talk," a Lebanese cloth merchant had said when we told him his price was too high. If we wanted, we could suggest a lower price. There were a dozen tribal languages in Senegal, with Wolof predominating in the Dakar area, but French was the unifying language commonly used in commerce, government and newspapers, in keeping with the region's French colonial history. Within a few weeks of my arrival, I was able to count to a thousand and beyond in French, in step with a vigorous walk. With Jan's tutoring, I could order a baguette at the street corner boulangerie. It wasn't hard after awhile to figure out what a newspaper story, advertisement or sign was about, so I figured I was ready for a solo trip to the local post office.
      The small lobby was crowded, with a line that stretched around the lobby. Twenty minutes later, when my turn came, the clerk became quickly impatient with my slow French and figured out what I needed by looking at my postcards. Then she asked a question. I heard "sangk" or "sahng," and 5 came to mind, but I wasn't sure whether she said something about 5, 50 or 500--or why. As I was trying to figure it out, mindful of other waiting customers and her impatience, a guy behind me, more amused and helpful, pointed out which coin in my hand she wanted. She eventually gave me the stamps I needed, but I felt acutely humbled, like a child at the mercy of unsympathetic adults. As I walked away, I decided that I wasn't going to try that again for awhile!
     Looking at the stamps and my change, I realized that she had asked whether I had 50 CFA in coin, since the total postage was 550 CFA and she wanted to give me a 500 CFA bill in change for my 1000 CFA bill. I also realized that recognizing a random number in a new language was very different from counting.
     The next day, however, I went back for more and not only got the stamps I wanted without difficulty, but also managed to fend for myself in getting served. There was no line. All the customers, as frequently happens, jammed together in a flat "V" shape, crowding up to the window. I had been amazed, when we flew to Casablanca, to find that there had been no line at the departure counter in the Dakar airport. We had to cram with other passengers up to the counter to check our bags. In the States, people automatically formed lines. If a flight was canceled, they would form an orderly line, without prompting, to get new flight assignments. Senegal, I decided, was mostly a "V" society, instead of a "Q" society (for orderly queue).

  1. First Bribe
  2. You Decide
  3. Acknowledging Others
  4. Passing Grade
  5. Two Foreign Cultures
  6. How Do You Say "Help" in Arabic?
  7. Risks in the Developing World
  8. UN, Deux, Trois
  9. Hello But No Cadeau  < Next