Bambara: how a misconstrued word can make your class go haywire

I love words, play on words, etymology, drawing meanings across languages and generally just twisting them around in one way or another.

Today, I came across this blog and I was not little intrigued by the fact that the word ‘kayak’ made a classroom full of Malian students giggle:

As I discussed the Great Canadian North and its inhabitants, I heard snickers and stifled laughter each time I said the word “kayak.”

Finally one of the girls put up her hand. “Miss, that word sounds just like a word in Bambara. A very, very bad word that a lady would never ever use.”

Kayak is a word I have always liked saying out loud for its simple musicality but also because it is one of those mysterious palindromes. I just had to get to the bottom of this, if only to avoid embarrassment on my next Malian expedition.

My Inspector Maneno jacket had to be unearthed from under a pile of otherwise more mundane clothes and off I was to find the truth about this disturbing ‘kayak’ the Bambara language was harbouring. My first impulse was to interview Mr. Konaté for I knew his knowledge to be great. Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be found on the world wide web and I had to resort to other means to discover the truth about ‘kayak’. It was not long before I wiped the dust off this very old-fashioned Bambara-French dictionary which held the key to the case at hand. The incriminating word was indeed not ‘kayak’ but ‘kaya‘ whose translation you will be well-advised to read for yourself.

On these good words we part. Tonight, Inspector Maneno can hang her jacket with yet another African word under her belt.

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