The most marked feature of my fieldwork, I think, will be my language skills. Unlike in Senegal, French (or an adapted form of it, called Nouchi) is the language that unifies a great number of ethnic groups in Cote d'Ivoire and is widely spoken across the country, especially in Abidjan. This is generally good for me, as I'm not having to guess whether I'm not understanding someone's French or whether they're not speaking French at all. But it also means that I'm quickly identified as a non-native French speaker, since the average level of the language is much higher than in Dakar.
But at times, it's such a shock when, after a brief conversation, people still misidentify me as French. The first time this happened was when I was buying a bed. After 5 minutes of discussions on the quality, the price, and whether they would deliver, the seller asked if I was French or Moroccan. Aside from the blue eyes that generally mark me as not-Moroccan, I was so surprised that he didn't register my lack of language facility and thought he was teasing me. Then he guessed Italian. Okay.
The second time was this week, when we had a plumber come back for a repeat visit. My French roommate had told him of the problem over the phone and arranged the visit, so I was just there to let him in. I spoke a few words with the plumber, and he communicated that he would have to return another day to do the whole job. When he returned, he asked for a few items and tried to explain what he was doing, but I couldn't understand him – I didn't learn home repair vocabulary in French class. Later, when he asked me another question and I asked him to speak "doucement" – slowly, gently – his assistant realized I wasn't French. Once they learned I was American, the plumber was much warmer toward me, and it dawned on me that he thought I was being rude to him with my miming, when I really didn't have the vocab for "drain."
It's troublesome that language and our use of it in in law and policy is central to my project but that I'm so tense about it in everyday life. Aside from the daily shopping and greetings, I read documents in French, I try to text my bilingual friends in French, I eavesdrop a bit on others' conversations, I have a French tutor, and I can talk about my project in French. But I am still so hesitant to not be able to explain myself fully, something I take such care about in English, selecting just the right word.
Apologizing up front for my French skills, explaining that I'm American, and being friendly seems to go a long way. I guess it's time that I just get over myself.
Travel and research notes
Fieldwork and travel in Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mali, as well as Burkina Faso, Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, and wherever else I end up. Plus occasional research-related thoughts.