Wetin na yu nem? Last week, I traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia in west Africa with a non-profit group called Living Water International. Beyond the many poignant interactions, the hopefulness among such great physical need, and daily dirt-road adventures, the trip opened my eyes to the connectedness between the places where I travel for Southern Living and the villages that welcomed me in Africa, especially in how we speak. By the way, earlier, I asked you your name. Wetin na yu nem?
I spend a lot of time in Louisiana. And I love, love, love the Lowcountry of South Carolina. This is new territory for me, a boy raised in Georgia, educated in Tennessee, and now residing in Alabama. Louisiana may be "Southern," but it’s more "Louisiana" than anything. And, the Lowcountry is such singular landscape; they say Charlestonians never leave.
I’ve begun to learn about the meshing of cultures in Louisiana especially, how New Orleans and the Mississippi River served a long time ago as an entry and assimilation point for Southerners, Europeans, French Canadians, Caribbeans, and Africans. This nexus, though certainly full of its share of harsh realities, was, and is, one of the most beautiful mysteries of human interactions our history holds. I love to remember that Jazz came to life here.
Another growth in the South, and other places where cultures mix, is pidgin language, the linguistics born from several spoken traditions. "Creole" is another word that can stand in. But in Sierra Leone, the term is "Krio," a blend of tribal dialects and the romance languages. Imagine my surprise to hear someone ask me, each morning as I stepped into the village, "Ow di body?" (This translates to "How is the body?" meaning "How are you?")
The history of pidgin languages in west Africa centers on the Atlantic slave trade and the resettlement of freed slaves from America into modern-day Liberia in the late 18th century. Essentially, Krio is a merchant language, a form of portspeak, if you will. And, if you’ve ever traveled on the sea island coast of South Carolina, you’ve heard American remnants of pidgin, especially on Daufuskie ("the first key") Island, the home of the Gullah Geechee. "Gullah" is a form of creole, or West African Pidgin English, and sounds much the same as my friends in Calabatown, Sierra Leone.
I am no expert on these subjects, the formation of language, the blending of peoples. Scholars write books about such things. What I do know though is how it feels to travel 26 hours, land in a lush and war-torn country, and to meet people whom you feel connected to immediately, by history and by place. It feels like reunion.
First photograph by Loren Brock, Liberia. Second and third images by Robin Weekley.
To learn more about Living Water International’s fresh water well projects in west Africa and 25 other countries, visit their website.