Africa: Breaking Language Barriers in West Africa

Ayodeji Rotinwa writes on his experience in Cotonou, the commercial capital of the Republic of Benin. There can be victory in an extra tomato. I learnt from my mother how to obtain in a market negotiation, an added pair of socks, more foodstuffs to thicken the soup, an extra tuber for a more lavish Sunday breakfast of yam and eggs after church. We would arrive at Ogba Sunday Market, making our way to where the fruits and vegetables sellers congregated, usually stopping at the first one on the row, but after my mother must have scanned everyone’s faces for tell-tale signs of tribe, ethnicity. The sellers were usually Yoruba. To start, my mother would share greetings and wishes, in the language, asking after the children, husband, and last week’s profits. She would continue to the weather; how it rained heavily last night, and did you hear on the radio that Ajejunle was flooded to the knees? She would then pick at one or two items on display. Let’s say they are tomatoes. She would congratulate the seller on fetching such kingly looking fruits; how red they are, how robust. The seller, by now, would be warmed by this kinswoman, happy for this conversation break from the labour of arranging tomatoes in pyramids on rusty tins and fanning away wayward flies with straw fans.

Then the question, ‘how much?’ No matter the price offered, it was never satisfactory. My mother would cut the seller’s asking price in half. The seller doesn’t know it yet but my mother has the upper hand. They would go back and forth on prices. My mother would then ask the seller where she’s from. If she is familiar with it, she would exclaim and speak the strain of Yoruba local to the seller’s origin. She will insist she and the seller may even be relatives, with much in common, most of all the spoken tongue. She would then go full force in the local dialect, ‘my customer’, ‘my price is good’, ‘we are speaking the same thing’. When my mother is done, she would have in hand tomatoes at the price she set out for, or less. She will ask for an extra one. Languages are a bridge. To close the gap between differences; to feel familiar, like home, even if momentarily; sometimes, to gain an advantage in a market price tussle and win an extra tomato. This was the case with me a week ago in Cotonou, a city where French is the language for everything. I do not speak French but through Google Translate I did. Google West Africa recently organised a four-day trip for a few media personnel to Cotonou, one of Benin Republic’s major cities; to experience how the search engine service and its applications can be a travel assistant while abroad. With the Google Translate was it ever! We were tasked with putting the language translation app to use in a real life scenario. We were sent into the market with some money (CFAs), a recipe written in French and a phone – the palm-sized Google Nexus – that had all of Google’s apps, for the exercise. The goal was to decipher the recipe, negotiate and purchase ingredients for a dinner of fillet fish in batter and a vegetable salad and report back with the correct change. While using French.

With the market women, sceptical that the app would work, I first tried broken English, some sign language and some Yoruba (it is widely spoken amongst some in Cotonou). I was not getting the kind of deals my mother would be proud of. I turned to the app. For the recipe, I held my phone over the list, with the Google Translate inbuilt camera running. With the camera panned to the paper, the words translated themselves to English, on the phone screen. Like the kind of thing JK Rowling writes about. Having figured out what to buy and what to ask for from the sellers, it was time to negotiate. Over the course of that, I typed out ‘Please’, ‘I have only 500 Francs’, ‘That is too small’,‘ Add one more’, on the app and the French translation and pronunciation appeared. Eventually, one seller softened (they are hard bargainers when they know you don’t speak the language!) and rewarded my efforts with an extra tomato. Thanks to Google Translate, I was my mother’s son. I was miles away from home, in a country with a different tongue and I was ‘stealing’ bargains, getting things done. I felt oddly triumphant. Google Translate wasn’t the only assistant on the trip. While there, the motley travel group that was the media, event planners and the Google representative, its West Africa Communications Manager, Taiwo Kola-Ogunlade, visited Benin’s Republic’s famed tourist sites, which happened to be far flung apart. We travelled by mobile cabin, which had convertible chair beds, an actual bed, tables/study area, a microwave, a fridge bursting with soft drinks, water and Ribena, a tour guide and most mercifully, a toilet. We started at Cotonou’s Sacred Forest, in Ouidah (L’Iroko Benin), a green expanse of great trees, dry brown, crunchy leaves on the floor, populated by statues of supposedly industrious gods who would offer you riches, artistic inspiration, heal wounds, smite your enemy, quicken the arrival of late offspring or bless you with longer erections.

With the Google App, commanded by my voice, rather than typing, I could confirm the tour guide’s information as he shared it. It proved to be a fine resource for information on the go. All I had to say was ‘OK Google, How many millionaires has this forest and gods produced and why hasn’t the country charmed itself to higher life expectancy, more paved roads, a lower global mortality rate amongst children, better healthcare services, disappearance of poverty?’ I didn’t exactly ask that, but Google Now provided as much information instantly. From the forest, we would journey to slave monuments, odes to helpless lives traded and exchanged across the sea to work in cotton plantations, sugar plantations, rice fields, gold and silver mines. The most striking monument was the UNESCO site, ‘The Point of No Return’ built at the lip of the endless, blue ocean. Here, black bodies previously certified productive, strong, with backs given to endless violence were cargoes of labour, loaded unto ships bound for Europe, the Caribbean or the Middle East.

From the monuments we would move to an Oceanside resort for lunch and subsequently a handicraft centre for making jewellery, art, fabric with local products and finally, the Benin Marina Hotel for dinner. In between each tour site and food stops, we could plan arrivals and directions with Google Maps. The journey between tour sites took over six hours. When touring, it certainly helps to be prepared, to know what to expect, to know how to move around, to know best, shortest routes and when lost or unsure of where you are, to find out without having to ask for directions from a stranger, if you’re the suspicious type. With Google Maps and Google App, I could calculate journey and arrival time and find out where exactly I was, down to street name. The apps use a satellite navigation technology that can zero in on your location, where your phone is sending signals from. Ouidah had no immediately visible street signs nor did the tour sites have maps. I asked, ‘OK Google, Where am I?’ and it told me. I felt safe. Were I to have been dislocated from the group, I reckon I wouldn’t have been (too) panicked. I would have said ‘Show me directions to Sun Beach Hotel’. That was our home base and the app would have led me, showing me the nearest bus stop. More to the point, the Maps app can also track your journey so one can simply retrace steps via the app to return home. The next day would be a lesson in history. We went to Ganvie Lake Village, a flourishing community in water, held up by stilts, referred to as, Google Search showed, ‘The Venice of Africa’. It was established 400 years ago, by the Tofinu people who settled there to escape slavers who came from the Fon tribe.

After this we would travel to Porto Novo, Benin’s capital city which was an estimated 1 hour, 3 minutes, (43km) according to Google Search and Maps, but took three hours. The app needs to take more on the ground information, into consideration – unpaved roads, toll gate traffic – to arrive at better time estimate. A satellite is not a local citizen. At Porto Novo was the King’s Palace, which has seen 24 kings since the 1800s and is no longer a kingdom because the Benin Republic as a country adopted socialism, which decreed equality for all in 1976. This would prove to be a small debate between me and Taiwo. Taiwo believed that the people embraced their king being delisted to a regular citizen because they were in a democracy. I reckoned at the time that Benin was under a dictatorship and didn’t know what democracy was so maybe socialism was foisted on them. A quick Google Chrome search (the most efficient browser in the world) via talking to the app – which recognised my voice, instead of typing ‘’ – would settle the score. In a debate, you want to find out which side has the superior point. ‘OK Google,’ I said. ‘Who was the president of Benin in 1976?’ “Matthew Kerekou was President of Benin from 1972 to 1991. After seizing power in a military coup…”
There can be victory in being right. Thanks, Google.



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