Weh ya seh?

Back to Africa Miss Matty?
Yuh noh know wha yuh day-sey?
Yuh haffe come from some weh fus,
Before yuh go back deh?

Wat a debil of a bump-an-bore,
Rig-jig an palam-pam!
Ef de whole worl’ start fe go back
Weh dem great granpa come from!

Go a foreign, seek yuh fortune,
But noh tell nobody sey
Yuh dah-go fe seek yuh homeland
For a right deh so yuh deh!

~”Back to Africa”, Jamaica Labrish, by Louise Bennett


A couple of years ago, at a family reunion, I told my aunt that my brother saw the world through music, and I saw it through words. I have since moved frum faarin to Jamaica, where every day, I find that new words open up new ways of thinking.

Language and culture are intimately tied. In Jamaica, I feel less guilty describing someone as fat. Here, if someone calls you fat, it’s not usually meant as an insult. In fact, it might be a compliment, especially if someone is calling you flufii gyal, meaning you’ve got some cushion, or fluff, and it looks nice.


Sitting on my Bed, Looking out my Door 😀

My brain buzzes as I try to construct sentences in Patwaa. I go to bed each night mentally exhausted, not only tired from making cultural faux pas, but swimming in a sea of words; thinking in English, peppered with Patwaa and occasionally interrupted by French, I try to remember how to speak.

To regress back to a toddler state of mind feels humbling, and not a little embarrassing. I find myself telling my three and six-year old host brothers to “use your words” when I realize, I should heed my own advice.


Bikini Beach, Port Antonio, Jamaica

I remember reading on my computer screen the word “Jamaica”, blinking in surprise as I imagined sun soaked beaches with palm trees fanning me, so different than the open, dusty plains cradled by mountains and the Eternal Blue Sky of Mongolia I expected. I thought with disappointment that I wouldn’t learn a new language, that Jamaicans would be too similar to me. I wouldn’t struggle, I wouldn’t change.

Now, I open up Jamaica Labrish, by Louise Bennett- the beloved, revered Miss Lou- and read “Back to Africa”, a poem about Jamaicans wishing to return to Africa, a desire among some Rastafarians and others who look to Ethiopia as their homeland:

“Go a foreign, seek yuh fortune,
But noh tell nobody sey
Yuh dah-go fe seek yuh homeland
For a right deh so yuh deh!”

Go abroad, see your fortune,
But don’t tell anybody that
You’re going to seek your homeland
Because you’re already there!

Everyone knows Bob Marley and Cool Runnings (which I have yet to see), but other than in Marley’s lyrics, most are not aware of Jamaicans having their own language which expresses their emotions, their worldview, their culture. Reading Miss Lou’s poems, I realize this book is a textbook to Jamaican culture, a key to help me unlock actions and words I find puzzling.

Listening to my community members and host family chat in Patwaa, my eyebrows creep towards my widow’s peak, as I repeatedly ask “Weh ya seh?”, the equivalent of “huh?” I often sit quietly the better to listen, a necessary exercise for someone as loquacious as me. When I do speak, I mix Patwaa and English, mostly talking in English with Patwaa phrases and words thrown in for flavor.

Now, when I think of volunteers in Peace Corps Moldova or Mongolia, I no longer envy them because they get to learn a foreign language and weave themselves into a new cultural fabric; mi noa mi kyan lern nuf ier ina Jamieka. Wan wan koko, ful basket!*

*I know I can learn plenty here in Jamaica. Little by little, it all adds up!

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