Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Have you ever danced in the night?

When I arrived at my house in Bambili it was almost dark and as always in places close to the equator the sun sets fast and within a little while, places were dark. There was no electricity that night and my neighbours had already closed their doors for the night. All I could hear was the sound of the African night, the mixed sounds of crickets and frogs. Bambili is situated in the hills and highlands of northwestern Cameroon and the nights can become quite cold and the houses easily feel chilly and mouldy because of the high humidity. The smell is distinctive. In the room with my boxes, the few belongings I had, two suitcases from Sweden and then some kitchen utensils I had packed and kept before I left Cameroon the year before. I sat down on the cold tiled floor and fear wanted to get a hold on me. Loneliness, as if no one knew where I was and hat I was going through. In that moment I remember I stood up, and instead of looking for a blanket or something warm to wrap around me I decided to find my loudspeakers and find my laptop and turn on the music. Right there I did my first dance performance in Bambili. I danced away fear and doubt and let joy and confidence along with faith fill my heart. My circumstances didn't change, the night was still dark outside and only God knew exactly what I was going through but I had learnt one of life's most important lessons, I learned to dance in the night.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Tone language, na weti?

And Change said "Let the consonants guarding the vowel to the left and the right contribute some of their phonetic features to the vowel in the name of selfless inter segmental love, even if the consonants thereby be themselves diminished and lose some of their own substance. For their decay or loss will be the sacrifice through which Tone will be brought into the world, that linguists in some future time may rejoice (Matisoff 1973a, 73)"

I'm working on a tone language. And as I am trying to write out rules how these tones work in Baa I came across this citation I thought worth sharing with you. 

Most languages of the world are actually tone languages. They use not only consonants and vowels but also tone as a contrastive feature in lexical meaning. Yes, so we all know languages like Chinese are tonal and for me whose native language is not very tonal, Swedish, it just seems like a jungle of impossibilities to understand or learn to even speak a tonal language. (Swedish has accent 1 and accent 2 as they call it. So we would have tonal melodies over words, but not assigned to syllables like in real tone languages.)

As most features in language, there are rules, and also irregularities. Tones can be a lot of fun, that is if you don't have to write a chapter about it and have a consistent analysis all through your grammar. It teaches us some interesting things about human language. And is it difficult? Well, not necessarily more difficult than other features of language. Some say that parents who speak a tonal language can easily understand their toddlers before they can even speak because the first things children learn is what? Melody. Be it intonation, or tone.

In Africa, and I am sure also in other parts of the world, there are drums, so called talking drums that can be used to communicate past far distances. In the past, used during war, announce a visitor, or maybe the birth of a prince. In other parts of the world, people whistle their sentences and the message gets through. 

I should give you a tutorial on Baa tone one day. Right now I'm pondering on how a to describe why a tone spread in one word, a prefix-verb context, and not in a compound noun.  Different rules apply and I need to get them straight. That is if I have got the labeling of melodies clear in the first place. Not to confuse you more I suggest you learn this phrase from Yoruba, another tone language of Nigeria. Want to know the meaning and many other useful phrases in Yoruba? Check the whole youtube video here.

Friday, 7 July 2017

What are you doing in life?

It's a great phrase to know in French 'Qu-est ce que tu fait dans la vie?', fits well with most  aliens you come across. But in as much as we are interested in others and try to be friendly, to be honest isn't this a reflection of how we compare one another? By putting labels and titles we can group people and ourselves easily on the scale of success.

I'm a linguist in training, I love what I get to do, work with exotic languages and learn lots of things everyday. And the people I work with who appreciate the things I do when I try to figure out how their language works, they just wonder why it takes so long to write a thesis. So to be honest, I don't think I'm the best at it, it is not well paid, I had to put up with Malaria and Typhoid last time I was working in Lagos. No, it is not the most comfortable thing I could do in life. And while there must be many others, smarter than me out there, they didn't  take the chance, maybe they never got it. Well I did get the chance and I took it.

Today my supervisor asked me what my plans are after having finished my PhD. My answer; plan 1) survive this PhD, 2) secure myself a house somewhere on the continent of Africa 3) live happily ever after. I should probably have said something but I ended up just smiling and I guess he wouldn't understand anyway if I told him my plans. I think if you really want to know someone better, don't just ask what they are doing, but rather why they are doing what they are doing.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Writing a grammar - who dares to try?

Between family visits, summer schools, work, conferences, courses and summer school again, via Sweden, Paris, Leiden, Paris, Leiden again and Rotterdam too, and London via Paris to Porquerolles I come home full of inspiration for language documentation and grammar writing. Sometimes you actually believe you can do it, writing a grammar. When you start working on a language you know so little about the task seems more than a mountain of impossible. But then you start collecting words, phrases, more words, longer phrases and maybe even a story or two. You go back to your first words, check them, realise you didn't hear that consonant the first time you listened, and you do it over and over and over again. 

As much as it is challenging it is also very rewarding. Not only do you get the joy of learning a language that you and only a few thousands of speakers have in common. But you also get to write history when documenting a language that there is no written record of. Voices have died and stories are forgotten but some are actually still alive, in people's memory. They can still tell of times before things were like they are now, before the white man had been seen on their land. And would the memories of the people in the past be fading there are surely new stories to write. 

As we advocate for equality and human rights the world remains very unequal and not every child get to learn to read and write in a language they speak with their parents. Imagine being rather discouraged to speak your mother tongue. In school they promote important languages. Maybe English and French, or maybe Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo. All very beautiful languages. In the best of worlds we would all get the chance to study and get our degree in whatever language we wished to. Still, maybe that's the problem some speakers may not even want to continue using their parents language. Why using a language without future? 

Now the grammar description linguist freak gets involved. Promoting each language's unique part and role of the world's patchwork of diversity. Maybe we could do some real fun things with this language that is really unique among the worlds' languages. And whether unique or not it will be so awesome for your grandchildren to listen to that song your grandma sang for you as a child. You may not remember it but your mom does. Let's record it! Let's get our video camera out and see what other things you want us to document about your language. 

Despite all the challenges, the tears and sweats of not hearing the sounds correctly (transcription I'm not giving up on you!) the joy of helping a group or a community to document their language in a way that future generations can listen to their history and their stories, I believe it is all going to be worth it. Today was such a hopeful grammar day. 


Friday, 29 April 2016

Fuel scarcity and some reflections

If you have ever woken up in the morning, or come home tired and dusty after a long day, and gone to open the tap just to realise: there went the last drops of water from the pipeline, you might understand why I always remember to thank God for running water whenever I take a hot shower. 

There are many things we take for granted in life and we seem often not to value things until we lose them. Living without running water is possible if you can carry water from a well, hopefully not too far from your house. You can bathe with a bucket of water pouring it over yourself, while trying to make sure you get all the shampoo out of your hair. You can also cook as long as you have some what clean water from that well, and as long as people don't dig any pit toilets around the well. Humans are highly flexible and adjust rather quick to new surroundings in order to survive. It doesn't make you happier if you complain, and by the way, don't forget: "blessed are the flexible, for they shall not break". 

They say that Nigerians are experts in the act to 'smile and suffer'. That means they do complain, they do say lots of things about their leaders and how they think their country should be ruled. But then, when it comes to making a change and trying to put justice and order in place the courageous critical voices often softens into an understanding smile. We are Nigerians after all so we are used to suffer. This is poverty in a nutshell! You can't make any change to your situation unless you are willing to take a risk and act differently. But then what do you expect a single mother with three kids to feed, who needs fuel to run her little hairsaloon and make ends meet, what do you expect her to do when prices of fuel run as high as 400 N/litre (about 2$)? No I can't really blame her for not leading a demonstration out on the streets of Lagos in protest.

When I stayed at University of Lagos last month there were riots and students locked the entrance and exit for all staff, students and any person who normally has access to the campus. We didn't leave the office until late evening when one of the gates had been opened. The student hostels had been out of electricity for several days, and when electricity finally comes it normally goes off after a few hours. Because the Nigerian National Electric Power Authority (abbreviated NEPA, used to jokingly stand for Never Expect Power Again) has not learnt their lesson from decades of electric supply, how to use their resources in order to provide according to its population's need. And with a government that doesn't seize the chance to learn how to build oil refineries though the opportunity to do so has been offered several times over the years, I guess the influence of well functioning, efficient organizations haven't been too persistent.

Imagine, thousands of students in a building without electricity trying to study, that also means, no electricity for the water pump, so no running water for the toilets (sha!) and no shower in the morning. AC is not to talk about because there was none in the first place, but no fan even(!) in this humidity with about 35 degree celcius. It became a health issue with risk of cholera and other diseases  spreading. And a warning should go to the students, don't come to the hospital on campus cause they don't have water either. 

I can't tell we have the right to destroy our environment or fight authorities but when our leaders have the money, or at least have the authority to make sure a sustainable solution is put in place, and still they don't do it, then I must admit we do have a right, why not call it an obligation, to say 'something is wrong here and whoever is seated on that authority should either move or use it well'. The students, no matter how right they were, had to leave the campus that week. The school authorities ordered police forces to make sure every demonstrant left the campus. Girls packed their things and left quickly, thanking God the police only hit their butts lightly with their guns rather than raped them (which not seems to be uncommon here). The campus remained silent for several weeks, just recently were the students told school will resume on the 2nd of May.

It is easy for me to condemn the police force, or more, the authority at the university, I am a foreign white student I can't join the protests any way. Well, I don't want to be a smiling suffering Nigerian. So, I too want to join those students with all my strength and help them shout 'water is a necessity stop spending our money carelessly!!!'. I might not know where to start, just like the single mother with her three kids waiting for hours in line to buy fuel to use for her small generator to run her business, but I know when I get influence myself one day and my words become louder and stronger and have more authority then they have today, then I will make sure to use my position well to let justice rule. Sounds easy when all change starts tomorrow, so I will do it today I decided, I will start my anti-corruption-no-more-fuel-scarcity movement today... Hm, I guess it is a bit ambitous but I'll figure out a way how to fight those giants, even if it might take time. And in the meantime I'll thank God for my running water.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Secret heroes - rarely heard of in the West, but not forgotten here

This week has been a bit challenging to me health-wise as I struggled a bit with a running stomach after having eaten a salad in one restaurant. I know we don't normally talk about these issues when we travel, we prefer to report on the positive sides of seeing new places. Well, I don't mind going through some smaller adjustments to the local environment here in Lagos, cause I know in the end it makes my system stronger. But when your body is weak and you wonder if it might be a virus, an infection or even malaria you get to reflect on the importance of good health services. 

Mama Dorcas took me to First Consultants Hospital, a private hospital here in Lagos. The doctor I met had studied at Karolinska in Stockholm, what a coincidence! Now as we were there waitting for the results from my blood test, which I by the way never in my life have experienced so gently that I hardly felt the needle and it didn't even  bleed afterwards, Mama Dorcas shared a story from the time when there was an Ebola case treated at that hospital. 

First Consultants Hospital treated the first Ebola patient in Nigeria, the Liberian-American financial consultant Patrick Sawyer. Sawyer came to Lagos in July 2014 for business meetings. At his first reaction he denied the symptoms and the disease, and was treated for malaria. As he was taken to First Consultants Hospital Dr Ameyo Adadevoh took action in trying to treat the patient and keep the virus from spreading. As Sawyer first denied the disease he even got the embassy to demand his release. Dr Adedevoh refused to release Sawyer and placed him in quarantine despite the pressure from the Liberian gouvernment. It is said that Sawyer in his anger tore off his catheter and pointed at the doctor and a nurse. Sawyer died five days after his arrival in Lagos. Both the nurse and doctor contracted the virus from him and died about a month later. The nurse was serving her first year as a professional, she was newly married and was expecting her first child. Without doubt, Dr Adadevoh in her act to prevent Sawyer to expose others to the virus, saved the city of Lagos and its over 20 million inhabitants and maybe the whole of Nigeria from experiencing a disastrous epidemic.

The Nigerian gouvernment also took other important decisions to prevent the spread, by mobilising their epidemiologists they traced down all individuals that Sawyer had been in contact with since his arrival in the country, and those of other Ebola cases. They visited a total of 26000 households and played a role in spreading information and preventing false rumours to cause riots and civil unrest.

Within three months the most densely populated nation of Africa had contained the Ebola virus with only eight deaths. Much thanks to those who unselfishly gave their lives to serve and protect others. Including Dr Adedevoh and the nurse treating Sawyer. The unheard stories of secret heroes that rarely reach the media in the West! 

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Glädje och Elkablar

Jag sitter på mitt rum i Oworonshoki, det är varmt, fuktigt och någon granne har visst fest ikväll så högtalarna dunkar på för fullt i hela kvarteret, bilar tutar och det är allmänt dammigt. Detta är Lagos, staden som många säger att man 'antingen älskar eller hatar'. 

Hemma hos oss bor vi tre barn och tre vuxna i en lägenhet med tre rum och ett vardagsrum, ett kök också. Här har vi rinnande vatten i stort sett hela tiden (det har bara hänt en gång under min vistelse här att det inte funnits rinnande vatten i kranen). Vi har en generator också som dundrar på balkongen för elen kommer och går lite som den vill. Under dagarna följer jag med Mommy till hennes kontor vid Lagos Universitet, där studerar också farbror Laye för tillfället. Jag har fått tillåtelse att sitta i biblioteket och läsa under tiden som farbror Laye har sina lektioner. När han är ledig jobbar vi tillsammans med Baa språket som är hans modersmål. Vi jobbar med ordlistor, fraser, meningar, grammatik, översätter från Baa till Engelska, vi sjunger sånger och jag får lära mig Baa.

I söndags besökte vi en grupp Baa talare som alla har vuxit upp i Kwa eller Gyakan men numera bor i Lagos. Där fick jag göra min första presentation på Baa språket. Den blev inte så lång och jag var tvungen att tänka ganska länge innan vissa meningar kom fram. Inför min presentation så bad jag Auntie Dorcas och Farbror Laye att ge mig ett namn på Baa. De tyckte det var en bra idé men vad ska man ge för ett namn som passar? Auntie Dorcas första förslag var ett namn som var lite svårt att uttala tyckte jag, men hon tyckte det passade då betydelsen av namnet var något i stil med 'Guds elkabel som förmedlar ljus'. Ja, det är inte illa att bli associerad med Guds elkabel men jag tänkte det kan vara bra undvika kortslutning så finns det inget annat, något med M som i Mirjam. Ja, varför inte Mitan, eller Dimitan. Mitt namn stavas ju med 'j' och många engelsktalande tycker det är lite märklig stavning när de uttalar mitt namn efter engelsk ortografi 'Mijam' så Mitan är inte så långt ifrån. Så från elkabeln fick det bli, Zɨ mi kaa Dimitan, vilket ordagrant betyder 'Mitt namn är Glädje'!