“Oh, You Do Know My Language”: Finding the Poetry in Another Tongue

By Christian Hayden
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer

I met a little boy that resembled my features
Nappy afro, gap in his smile….
He looked at me and said, “Kendrick you do know my language
You just forgot because of what public schools had painted–Kendrick Lamar “Momma”

If there is a way I have internalized the idea that I am something less or that my existence was limited, I would attribute that feeling to the guilt, or shame rather, of not knowing a foreign tongue. Though I was privileged enough to attend private school in the United States, my French career lasted three very short years, in 9th grade ending in an F. I continued with Latin instead, in part because I knew I would never be asked to speak it. Also, I would not have to explain that I lacked the means to go somewhere it was widely spoken. Arriving here more than 10 years after my failed foray into French I worried my tongue, and thus my mind, were stunted. Would I only be able to speak to the world through one language? Would I be limited to one context?

Language Lesson from left to right: "water satchet" is kom, "leaf" is va’u, "stone" is ku’ili, "stones" is ku’a.

Language Lesson from left to right: “water satchet” is kom, “leaf” is va’u, “stone” is ku’ili, “stones” is ku’a.

After a few weeks of Dagbanli, verbally jousting greetings with passersby on motorbikes, impromptu kinesthetic lessons with children, and late night language study guide crafting, I am convinced there is something humanist about learning another language. Greet someone in their local tongue, there is a certain light that exudes from their eyes. –O b(or)himdila Dagbanli -(which translates to “he is learning Dagbanli” emphasis on learning) is a sentence I have heard so often in this journey, spoken to other amazed eavesdroppers who spy into my attempts to buy something or inform someone of my travels. It is said with such an easy delight and genuine surprise. In that expression I hear this person is serious about connecting with us, learning who we are. Children may snicker at me and occasionally it is tiring to get a walking quiz on your way to work, but the effort is noticed and appreciated by others, and offers me a significant source of validation. Someone told me, “when you was think of words to say, you close your eyes and tilt your head back and concentrate really hard.” In many ways, I am communicating much more than poorly pronounced words.

In the way that learning and growth are important pillars to humanism, shedding the idea I could not learn another language changed my understanding of myself and opened me up to even more paths of growth and means of connecting to others. Sometimes that has come in the form of redirection of thought, or checks on who I am and what I think. In an exchange with our language teacher I asked if I could use the word lu for fall, for a common phrase in English “fall in love,” in Dagbanli. He said no, which frustrated me but pushed me to inquire how to communicate that idea. A staff member of our partner organization, Songtaba, told me the way that is expressed in Dagbanli is n suhu gbaagi a, which means “my heart seizes you,” or “my heart is pleased by you.” I have very far to go, but at this point I believe with the little I know I won’t starve and I could get married. In other words progress has been made.

Dagbanli also shows problematic aspects of Dagomba culture, as certain phrases and rules articulate a patriarchy embedded within the language. For example, respect shown to men and boys, that is not given equally to women and girls. I take this in stride though as English has its own problematic aspects. My job is not to judge but to learn, to connect. I see humanism as a way to contextualize one’s existence, in large part by holding highest the ethical and rewarding relationships we have to other humans. I do not have all the answers, but if I leave my heart and ears open, maybe I, and others, might get a little closer and we’ll be seized by one another.

Christian Hayden

Christian-Hayden-Action-Shot-300x300 Christian Hayden is an Ethical Humanist living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but born in Brooklyn, New York. He is an educator and avid Hip Hop fan, and considers relationship-building and encouraging the pursuits of the human soul to be holy endeavors. Christian’s journey to the Humanist Service Corps originated in his desire explore humanism, as well as pan-africanism, and a six-year-strong personal commitment to pursue justice. When describing HSC, Christian likes to use the term ‘humanist pilgrimage;’ such a description resonates with Christian because it explicitly ties the depth of doing service to a greater, intentional spirituality, which is given further meaning in the context of forming a global community.

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