Anyone visiting Mbandaka will learn a few words of Lingala but I leave certain that all efforts to learn and to risk using the language are rewarded. Aside from using a playful, delightful amalgam of vocabulary borrowed from several Bantu, Spanish, English, and French languages, it is also incredibly useful. To take a dramatic example of the benefits of risking use of the most widely spoken language in Congo, consider picture taking in the country.
The $50 price of my Lingala textbook and more was saved in use of the language in my one confrontation with soldiers in Mbandaka. After having been warned that very morning by Rev. Bonanga that picture taking in a port area is considered a security breach, I foolishly clicked away when former Sister Genevieve’s boat docked at the port next to my house. Papa Jean arranged chairs on the lawn for the ensuing palaver over the serious infraction that I had committed. A trip to their headquarters and heavy “fine” was avoided by pleasantries followed by pointed conversation in Lingala. One of the two finally declared an end to it by naming a payment we all readily agreed on.
A Lingala phrase book is indispensable for anyone wanting to take pictures of the people. During the colonial era, photos of Congolese adults were taken by the Belgian administration. This results in a tradition of looking frozen and stiff for a portrait even if the subjects are far too young to have lived under Belgian rule.
Use of the Lingala verb “koseke” in portrait photography brings surprising results every time. The word can mean “smile” or “laugh” and I never failed to bring a toothy smile by using it. A questioning rise of the voice with the last two sylabbles as though asking “do you ever smile?” usually results in laughter among the subjects. “Koseke” worked like magic every time. In using Lingala I experienced over and over the 19th century English explorer Richard Francis Burton’s wisdom,
“Nothing goes to the heart of a man quicker than speaking to him in his native tongue.”
Burton’s comment comes out of many years of foreign travel and speaking more than 30 languages at one time or another. What a pleasure to leave my comparatively sedentary life and enjoy once again the truth of this wisdom in returning to Congo and speaking a language I had all but forgotten. Some examples of the playful nature of Lingala will follow in another posting.