In Ouagadougou and the surrounding towns, the Mossi people who are preponderant speak the Moore language (pronounced More – ay). Soon after our installation in our house, we decided to take Moore lessons. Not only is it an opportunity to learn another language, but also to better understand cultural values and customs. Each language has its own logic. The logic is different from language to language, but every people group has its way of seeing the world, which is conveyed in the way the language is structured and in its vocabulary.
Our teacher, Constance, who used to teach in MCC’s language school until it closed down, teaches Moore to both American Peace Corps and French volunteers. She also offers private lessons and agreed to come to our house once a week for lessons. It has become painfully clear that our brains are no longer 20-something! While we have a highly qualified and very patient teacher, it takes a lot longer for the words to stick in our brains. As well, whenever life gets busier than usual, as it did in December, it is easy to put off studying. Therefore we have not made huge gains, nor are we conversant with any except our night guard who enjoys letting us practice with him. Nevertheless, we have slowly gained a repertory of words and have just recently begun learning verbs. Now at least perhaps we can begin to form actual sentences!
Some of the things that we have learned from our Moore lessons:
- The name of the country, Burkina Faso, is a combination of the three principal languages (Moore, Fulani and Djula) and means “The patrimony of people of integrity”. Much nicer than the previous name: “Upper Volta.”
- The first thing we learned was how to greet people. Greetings are extremely important in the Moore language and they are not limited to a simple “hello, how are you?” Along with this common greeting are added questions concerning one’s family members, one’s work and one’s day. In rural settings, people greet everyone with whom they cross paths whether they know them or not. Since people are mostly on foot or on bicycle, it is a simple matter to stop and exchange greetings before continuing on. In urban settings, it is less likely that you will greet everyone. It is, however, impolite to ignore people. Greetings and many other phrases which we have learned help to ensure that we acknowledge our common humanity with other people. Relationships are of highest importance here.
- One of the first words we learned is “laafi” (pronounced “laaa-fee”). It is very similar in meaning to the Hebrew word “shalom” in that it conveys peace, health and general well-being. In greeting another, one asks if she has “laafi” and the first answer (which might be followed up with more accurate information) is always “laafi.” We trust that a society that values laafi so much can model peaceful living for other peoples as well.
- When you take your leave of someone, your farewell is always in the form of a blessing: “God grant us next time”; “God make you arrive home in safety”; etc. The appropriate response is “amiina” (amen) which means “let it be so.” As we found in Benin, blessings are a very important part of life; words are considered very powerful and the expression of well-wishes can bring about the very thing wished for.
- We spent several weeks learning the different words for family relationships. The organization of families and the roles of different members is an important indicator of cultural values. In Moore, there are different words to express “maternal aunt” or “maternal uncle” or “paternal aunt” and “paternal uncle”. More importantly, one’s paternal uncles are given the same status as one’s own father. Sometimes a child (whose father has died and who is subsequently raised by an uncle) does not even realize that the man he calls father is really his uncle. There is also no word for “cousin”; cousins have the same status as siblings.
- Learning the numbers alone will not help us when we go out to buy in the local markets. In Moore, money amounts are expressed differently from the way they are expressed in French. So 100 francs as expressed in French is expressed as “twenty” in Moore because “one” when it concerns money is really 5 francs. This has to do with the way coins and bills are manufactured. The smallest coin is 5 francs, so it is one. The next coin, 10 francs, is two (2 x 5). The third coin, 25 francs, is five (5 x 5) and so on. Thus 100 francs is expressed as twenty (20 x 5).This is an interesting example of cross-cultural impact on language development. The monetary system comes from outside the Mossi culture, but the Moore language assimilates the new information.
Neither of us expects to become truly fluent in Moore. We hardly ever need to use it and the second language (after French) in our church community is Djula! Nevertheless, it has been helpful to study Moore and to learn more about the culture and the people among whom we live.