04 June 2016

The Owner of the Room

So much of language is culture.  We often assume that language is simply a collection of words structured in a certain way and organized by these funny symbols we call emojis . . . I mean, punctuation.

Children learn the language of their parents (or languages, in some cases) by hearing and slowly mimicking.  Early mispronunciation or grammatical errors are often considered adorable, but are corrected as the child matures and begins school.  Through this style of learning, the cultural component of language is absorbed and naturally understood.

But when one studies a new language as an adult, there are heaps of nuances that are not so easily perceived.  And we find ourselves beginning to finally scratch the surface of what it really means to speak Hausa.


"Danuwa" our language teacher introduced another way to say "brother."  In Hausa there are multiple words for this relationship some of which are specific to identify the older brother or the younger brother.

This word, danuwa, literally means "son of my mother".  Our teacher explained that in the cultural context of Niger, danuwa also can mean "close friend" . . . someone who is so deeply trusted you could come from the same womb.

As I attempted to register the word into my memory (an often fruitless endeavor), I asked our teacher, "Is this word for a brother who has the same mother and same father?"

Over my years in Niger I found that to be a recurring comment.  Someone would tell me about their family and they would stress that certain siblings shared the same two parents as opposed to half-siblings.

"Do we say danuba (son of my father) for a half sibling with a different mother?" I went on to ask.

Our teacher explained that because of the polygamous cultures within Niger, it is possible that those words originated in that way, but over time even if there is animosity between half-siblings, they would rarely go so far as to call one another danuba, as the word has now come to culturally mean "enemy" . . . a term a Nigerien would not use lightly considering the relational nature of the national character.

I was busy enjoying my newly discovered cultural nuance that I nearly missed the next one.

Our teacher gave us another exercise in which we had to make up our own sentences to practice the proper use of the verbal pronoun for the version of "to be" which indicates identity.  Something got lost in translation and I repeated what my teacher said to me, rather than correcting the sentence to accurately talk about myself.

"Maiguida alksjdf ksajdf lkjdsf lkdfjal;djflksjDF." I said (because the only word I actually remember saying from the sentence was maiguida -- husband).

"Maidaki," our teacher corrected me.

I stared at him.

"Maidaki!" he repeated.

I stared some more.

"You said maiguida, but he is maiguida, the owner of the house [culturally meaning "husband" in this context], you are maidaki!"

Now I had heard of urwuguida before, "woman of the house" or "wife", but I had never heard the term maidaki.  I didn't even know what daki meant, how could I be the owner of it?  Now I've been called a lot of things . . . like maiwayo (the owner of cleverness, which in the context was really cheekiness) or tsaroniya (the queen or princess)  I've even been called shinwa (Chinese) a handful of times . . . but never maidaki.

"What's maidaki??" I asked.

"Well, daki is 'room' and you're the woman, so you own the room."

I didn't quite get it.

"The man owns the whole house," our teacher stated.  "But the woman, well, she owns the room."

We still weren't quite understanding, if the man owned the whole house, why does the woman get a room?  Doesn't the one who owns the whole still own the parts??

Seeing that our lightbulbs hadn't yet illuminated, our teacher explained "Well, the man may own the house, but it's the woman that tells him 'This goes here, and that goes there, and put that out there!!'"

Hence, the Owner of the Room.

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