When my family was preparing to visit me in Senegal, they expected a clear cut answer when they asked, “How do you say thank you in Malinke?” But as with so many other aspects of culture, the American expression of gratitude does not have a direct analog.
Abarka, an imported version of thank you with roots in Arabic, is used to express gratitude for food or something given, but the real thank you is directed to God, not the person who has prepared the meal. Then there is the colonial merci, often pronounced mer-ee-cee by older women who never went to school to receive a formal French education. In the Malinke language, two consonants are always separated by a vowel, and some speaker’s tongues are unused to those sound combinations. My host mother and her contemporaries usually used merci to mean, “It is good” rather than the traditional translation of “thank you”, often accompanying the word with a clapping of hands.
In pure Malinke, gratitude is expressed to people through the phrase I nin sege. In my Peace Corps language training manual, this is defined as “thank you—for an action,” literally translated as, “you are with tired”. You hear it most often as a greeting shouted out to laborers returning to the village from the fields or the gold mines. I sometimes chuckled to imagine Americans on their way home from work yelling out, “Thank you!” to friends and strangers alike.
I think the reason that this scenario seems strange is that we are used to thanking people for things that directly affect us. Why would we thank someone for simply doing their job if it doesn’t have anything to do with us? Maybe an answer lies in the Senegalese response to gratitude, most often expressed in Wolof with the words nioko bok. “We are together.”
The Malinke cultural attitude can be seen as fatalistic; many don’t feel that people have real agency in what happens in life. Most of the gratitude is then expressed to God. Alhamdoulilahi, the Arabic for “Thanks be to God”, is painted on every bus in the country of Senegal. If a person helps you, it is because God willed it. I nin sege, then, can be seen as a separate aspect of gratitude, recognizing the work of others in a life that is often very hard, with few material rewards. We are getting through this together, the greeting suggests. Thank you for your struggle, which is also my own.
This is my first American Thanksgiving since coming home from my two years in West Africa. Of course I am grateful for hot showers, infrastructure and nutritious and delicious food. My family is grateful that I am no longer living on the border with Guinea. But I am also grateful to have had the opportunity to experience a different perspective on gratitude to God and people, to have really been together with a community who sees the world so very differently.