Linguacultural Lessons from the Jula of Odienné: Exploring Côte d’Ivoire’s Northwest

Lesson #1: I jatigi ye jɔn ye? Who is your host?

There were two major reasons I traveled to the north, and neither of them involved getting stranded in a dirt field. 

As I looked down at my map, I realized I had miscalculated. Odienné’s tiny airport was about an hour’s walk to the city center, and there were no cabs or mototaxis in sight. As I exited the building I saw everyone else get picked up by private vehicles that disappeared across the long, dusty road. 

 “Aw dansɛ ! Aw dansɛ !”/  I turned and saw an elderly couple being greeted by their family. Welcome, welcome— they were saying. This place already felt so different to the other regions I had traveled to in Côte d’Ivoire. 

Two months before I moved to this country, I learned the basics of the Jula language with a teacher named Drissa. This was the first reason I visited the northwest: I wanted to embark on a linguistic pilgrimage and greet his village.

So of course, saying I was stranded is an overstatement. I could have done more planning (as always), but it wouldn’t have been a true solo trip (in my opinion) without the few ounces of spontaneity added into it. In reality, I did have a few phone numbers I could call. The problem was that those numbers belonged to people I didn’t really know yet, who lived in villages far from the city. I also had some (probably irrational) anxiety that my request would not be so well-received (i.e. random Westerner shows up one day and demands Ivorians for a ride from the airport because he’s an incompetent travel planner :0 ).

To be fair, rural West Africa can be notoriously difficult to navigate as a solo traveler. You can’t just go on the Internet and find an organized tour. You have to know somebody. In the Jula language, the term jatigi refers to your host or your guide, but I get the impression that it means more than than just a glorified tour guide. I’ve found that people can go to great lengths here to serve you: arranging the best price, acting as your interpreter and spokesperson, and exhibiting hospitality in the highest sense.

So as scatterbrained as I was, I needed to find some sort of jatigi, even if that meant relying on the kindness of strangers. I turned to one of the security guards and explained my situation. He said he’d talk to the people in the office, and after about half an hour, some men came out looking for me. 

One of them motioned for me to get into his van.

C’est ta première visite au nord?/ Is this your first time visiting the north?

I nodded. The other colleague sitting next to him turned around to address me: 

T’as peur?” Are you scared?

Not really, I responded. 

Anyway, what could one more spontaneous adventure cost me?

Lesson #2: I Julakan fɔ wa? Do you speak the language of merchants?

The Jula (or Dyula, Dioula) are an ethnic group living in several West African countries. Together with Bambara, Malinké, and Mandinka, their language (called Jula or Julakan) is part of a larger dialect continuum known as Manding

In Manding, the word for “language” is represented by the morpheme kan, such as in the words faransikan (French) or anglais-kan (English). Thus, the literal meaning of Julakan is “the language of traders.”

At the corner of Odienné’s Grande Mosquée

During the height of the Mali empire in the 14th century, the Jula were the merchant class who traveled all over West Africa. Along with the goods they carried, the Jula brought both their language and the religion of Islam. Eventually, the word Jula became synonymous with trader (and oftentimes, Muslim), and Julakan developed into a regional trade language.  

This is probably why Drissa spent so much time teaching me how to negotiate at the market: Julakan is first and foremost a language of commerce. Manding speakers have certain ways of asking and bargaining, even using their own system to refer to different values of money.

After six months of living in Côte d’Ivoire, daily negotiations were nothing new to me. Most of the time, markets in Africa don’t have fixed prices, so bargaining is normal. There have been some situations, though, where I’ve felt the brunt of “hidden transactions” in many forms: fake bus station employees, police officers expecting bribes, random people on the street wanting to show you around. At least for me, it hasn’t been easy determining someone’s true intentions.

So when the Air Côte d’Ivoire employees brought me to the city center, I felt there was some unspoken transaction going on. What did they really want from me? I sheepishly dug deep into my pockets and offered him a bill to apologize for being an inconvenience.

But the man shook his head no. He pointed behind me to his friend on a motorcycle. He had already called a hotel where I could stay for the night, and his friend was about to take me there.

“On est ensemble,” he told me.

I was shocked. But I didn’t want to read too deeply into his words, so I went with it and thanked him. If there was one way that Odienné could say “Aw dansɛ ” to me, this was the way that spoke to me the loudest.

*Lesson #3:* The Art of Foli  (e.g. “You and the morning?”, “My Mother”, and “May God give you a very good wife, Amen!”)

The other reason I wanted to go up north was thanks to my former anthropology professor, who had spent several years in the region working with a group of Jula hunters called the Dozos. By a stroke of luck, I discovered that an American doctoral student of his happened to be in Odienné at the same time I was. After a few last-minute exchanges over WhatsApp, AJ became my unofficial jatigi. We met for lunch, and he agreed to introduce me to the village communities.

We started our journey the following day. AJ researches agricultural practices of local farmers, and because their schedule depends on the sun, we leave at 6AM. Before getting into his car, he first introduces me to a few of his friends and research assistants: Yacou, a native of Odienné, and Somé, a Burkinabé. 

As I follow my guides into the village, I see the first circular homes of brick and thatched roofs. A couple of women are pounding foutou, and some children are running around. Yacou spots Drissa’s brother in the distance.

Yacou begins the greeting: “I ni sɔgɔma.

You and the morning. Perhaps it might be stated better as a question: You and the morning? Or maybe, how are you getting on with the morning? How are you facing the morning?

Nba, he replies, using a word which cannot be perfectly translated into English.

Greeting is an extremely important custom that is embedded into many African languages. As opposed to the very English “Hello, how are you? Fine, and you? Fine, thanks”, Manding greeting (foli) is both an art and a science. You ask your neighbor if they slept peacefully. You ask about their health. You ask about their family members. You proclaim multiple benedictions and blessings over them (Amen!).

As your typical INFJ, I’ve always despised small talk. What’s the point of exchanging words when there’s no real meaning to them? Yet even if these speech patterns seem superficial, our words do perform meaning. People establish and maintain relationships, exchange the news, and even know you’re a good person just by greeting. Conversely, when you choose to not greet somebody, some may interpret this behavior as deliberate or even disrespectful. 

At one of the houses, we meet Yacou’s mother. As Yacou translates her words into French, I try to process and respond appropriately to her words. Her stream of benedictions are like bullets from a machine gun, but each time I hear “Ala” (God), I respond with a confident “Amen!”. May God give you good health. Amiina! May God accompany you on your journey. Amiina! May God give you a very good wife. Amiina!  

We continue to visit each household and compound within the village. This is how I learned that greeting— just like small talk— is an embodied form of social cohesion. If you think about it, a greeting doesn’t really mean anything, other than acknowledging the existence of another person. But even in acknowledging someone’s existence, there are worlds of meaning. 

Lesson #4: The performance of Senankuya (e.g. ”You are my slave, and you eat potatoes.”)

“Do you want to be a Traoré or a Koné?” 

I sit there with my sugary Nescafé as they ask me the question of the day. At only 7 in the morning, it feels like an honor to be offered a choice of a family name.

In Jula culture, family kinship is important. Every family has a name (jamu), a shared history, and a deep loyalty between fellow kin. Yacou’s family are the Traoré, while Drissa’s family are the Koné. 

But there is also a second type of relationship, known as senankuya, which describes how people interact between families.  AJ explains to me that every family name has one or more senangou, or “joking cousins”. When you meet someone for the first time, you learn their jamu. If they’re your senangou, you are, by default, allowed to say jokingly horrible things to each other (e.g. you and your family are my slaves!!!)

The senangou of the Traoré happen to be the Koné, and since I’ve decided to become a Koné, I am now the joking cousin of both Yacou and AJ. As we walk through the village, senankuya comes to life at each household we encounter.  

At the courtyard of one Koné family, we greet a group of women. One of them turns first to AJ. “I jamu di? “ she asks him.

“Traoré,” AJ replies.

The woman scoffs. She then asks him if he eats beans and potatoes, suggesting that he’s too poor to eat anything else.

“No,” AJ responds in Julakan. “I eat yams.”

She turns to me and asks if I’m also a Traoré.

“Ohn-ohn,“ I respond: “N jamu bɛ Koné. Traoré man di!“ No, I’m a Koné. The Traoré family isn’t good!

Everyone laughs and the women affirm my choice of surname. “I Koné!” she grabs my hand and thrusts it into the air, beaming with pride at meeting a distant relative from the best family line in history. 

Lesson #5: La Parabole de l’Anacardier (The Parable of the Cashew Tree)

On the road between villages, AJ spots a cashew tree and stops to give me a brief history on the cashew. Since I’ve never seen a cashew fruit in my life, I get out of the car and marvel at its shape. 

With roots from beneath the earth and across the seas, the cashew tree is both a well-traveled griot and a modern third-culture kid. It was raised in Brazil and Venezuela, taken by the Portuguese sailors to India, brought overland into the fields of Asia, and finally settled down in West Africa. These days, Côte d’Ivoire is one of the world’s leading producers of cashews.

Yacou hands me the yellow fruit to try. It looks awkward and funny, yet its pungency clings to my gums minutes after I’ve swallowed. My American-born mouth has never experienced this taste before. I suppose I’ve really only known the cashew for its crunch— not for its sweetness.

Lesson #6: Saying goodbye, asking for the sira

Odienné was one of the first places in West Africa where I felt I could truly let my guard down and live authentically as myself. While I can’t speak to the everyday experience of living in the north, those three days showed me a side of the country I never thought I’d be able to see.

I stayed in Odienné for another day before continuing on my journey. In some bizarre way, I felt like I was leaving behind dearly beloved friends and family. In reality, we had only met over the course of 48 hours. 

When saying a formal goodbye in Côte d’Ivoire, one must ask for the road. In Julakan, you would ask for the sira, while in French, you would ask for la route. In response, your host will reply: Je vous donne la moitié de la route. I give you half of the road. In other words, you are always welcome to return this way.

One might interpret “asking for the way” as reaffirming a social relationship, just like greeting does. But even more so, I think that asking for the way is recognizing that sometimes, you don’t know all the answers. There are times when you must rely on someone else to help you out. When I think about it, I wouldn’t have been able to make it to Côte d’Ivoire without the help of so many people in my life. Especially from AJ and my former teachers, their many cumulative years of building relationships paved the way for me to experience this moment of rich culture. 

If Côte d’Ivoire were a plant, perhaps it would be a cashew tree. There’s a strange feeling you get when you think you know something, and then you experience it face-to-face for the first time. I’ve realized how true this is the longer I live here. In some ways, I see myself in the tree, as I learn to understand the beautifully complex story that is West Africa. Despite all of the personal challenges I’ve faced this year, moments like these are why I choose to continue. 

So to my family in Odienné— aw ni cè aw ke ka sira yira na.

Thank you for showing me the way. 


  1. Michael! I read your blog post aloud to my friend (I hope you don’t mind) in the early morning last week. Your storytelling is so beautiful. There is so much gratitude in your writing. Though your stay was short, your words reflect how it didn’t feel so. Lesson #2 reminded me of how in my archaeological studies, I learned that writing emerges for culture in one of two ways: record-keeping for commerce or historical record-keeping. So many things to respond to, but Lesson #3 moved me deeply, and Lesson #5 made me yearn to taste unfamiliar flavors. I look forward to reading more of what you choose to share!

    1. Hi Maddie— thanks so much for taking the time to read! I’m glad you connected with Lesson #3 because that the act of greeting (correctly and with full engagement) was probably one of the hardest for me to learn how to do.

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