top of page
  • Writer's pictureAïché Sissoko

I DON’T WANT MY KIDS TO GET LOST IN AMERICA, SO I’M TEACHING THEM BAMBARA

By Aïché Sissoko



“Ini sogoma” is how my 4-year-old son Isiaka greets me every morning. His little sister, Hawa, imitates him, moving her lips to try to say the same greeting as she follows him, like the good little sister that she is, from their room to the master bedroom where my husband and I are just waking up.


“Bonjour! Ini sogoma! Morning mommy, daddy!”


Isiaka shouts, bright and early as he walks into our room wearing his two-piece pajamas as Hawa tags along. The cheerful chirps of my two toddlers greeting me in three different languages has now become my and my husband’s alarm. My children are early birds.


“‘Ini sogoma’ is how my 4-year-old son Isiaka greets me every morning.”


We’ve been practicing the greetings for a long time and he’s finally got it. I still get excited when I think about Isiaka’s first Bambara word, “awo” which means yes.


“Na yan.”


“Come here.”

“Ini sogoma.”

“Good morning.”

“Na yan.”


Teaching the kids Bambara is very natural for me. Bambara is the language of the Bambara (Bamanan) ethnic group and it’s spoken by roughly half of the population of Mali. I’m a third generation Liberian from a Malian family. My mother and her twin were born and raised in Liberia. Their parents made sure all of my uncles and aunties could speak Bambara. This kept them all connected to their culture and traditions. It was a smooth transition for them when they got to Mali’s capital of Bamako once the civil war broke out in Liberia at the end of 1989.


“The cheerful chirps of my two toddlers greeting me in three different languages has now become my and my husband’s alarm.”


I was raised in the U.S. Now, I am raising my two little ones in America, too. As my grandparents raised their children, I am teaching my own kids the language of my people so that they’ll always feel connected to their homeland.


Isiaka struggled a bit when we decided to speak to him exclusively in Bambara. He was confused. He was hearing English all around him and his parents were only speaking a foreign language to him. We thought he'd definitely learn English because it’s spoken everywhere, but Bambara isn’t. His only way of learning Bambara is by us teaching him. We kept on for about six months until he fully understood the language. He now understands whatever you say to him in Bambara and he would act upon what he’s asked to do in it, although he struggles to say some words.



“I’m a third generation Liberian

from a Malian family.”


I’m holding on tight to my culture and traditions by making sure my children can speak Bambara so they will not get lost in America. After all, they are Malian-Americans. They will never be called just Americans. I want to make sure the “Malian” part is not just what they are called but what it should represent and who they really are.


“After all, they are Malian-Americans. They will never be called just Americans.”


There are very few Malians here in the Seattle area, the capital of Washington. We are the only Malian family within our neighborhood as far as we know and we feel very welcome. Our neighbors actually love discovering African food, clothes, etc. It’s said that Africans always find each other wherever we go. I’ve managed to make friends with some Malian families with children the same age as mine, who live about thirty minutes away from us.


I remember when my sisters and I first arrived in the U.S. more than 20 years ago, not knowing a word of English. Everything was strange at first until we made friends. We transitioned really well because the neighborhood kids were friendly and the school had a great English As A Second Language (ESL) program. My high school years were amazing and I also had a good experience in college.




Transitioning from college life to starting a career wasn’t smooth sailing. As a child of immigrants growing up in the U.S., I just didn’t have the right network – the network of family and friends who could assist in kick-starting my career. I learned quickly that I needed to create my own network in order to succeed; which I did and I’m very grateful for those I can always count on professionally and personally.


“As a child of immigrants growing up in the U.S., I just didn’t have the right network – the network of family and friends who could assist in kick-starting my career.”


In the Mandingo culture, names play a significant role in a person’s connection to an ethnic group, religion and region. My husband is from the Bamana (also known as Bambara) ethnic group and I’m a Soninke. We named our son Isiaka Jamil. Isiaka is a Bambana version of Ishaq in the Quran and Isaac in the Bible and it means, “he who laughs.”




Isiaka (Isaac) was the son of Abraham and Sarah. It’s said that Sarah laughed when the angel told them they would get a child since she was a bit old to have one. Jamil is also from the Quran and it means graceful, handsome. Our daughter’s name is Hawa Nura. Hawa is an Arabic equivalent of Eve in the Bible and it means “air, life.” Nura means “light, radiant” and it’s from the Surah An-Nur in the Quran.




They say when a language is lost, a piece of culture is lost with it. I believe my children can identify as Malian-Americans all they want but the connector to their people, to the culture will forever be lost if they can not understand or speak Bambara.


Mali is a Francophone country. Most of West Africa where our people, the Mandingos (Mandinkas) come from is Francophone. In fact, out of all the 15 West African countries, five are Anglophone (Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, The Gambia and Sierra Leone); two are Lusophone (Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau) and the remaining eight (Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger, Mali, Senegal, Togo) are all Francophone. Having my children only speak English will definitely disconnect them not only from their kin and compatriots, but from millions of West Africans. Being able to speak French will help my children in the future but preserving the languages of our people – the Mandingos and other Mandé peoples – is more important to me than preserving the language of the colonizers.


In the summer of 2022, I traveled to Bamako, Mali with my husband and children. It was the first time my children were in Africa. This was a big deal for us and I had been waiting for the moment for a long time. Initially, we thought we would introduce our first child, our son Isiaka, to the extended family in Mali before he was a year old. Unfortunately, Covid-19 made that impossible and we waited two more years to do so.




“My husband is from the Bamana (also known as Bambara) ethnic group and I’m a Soninke.”

Everything happens for a reason, it’s often said. Allah made it that by the time we would be in Mali, Isiaka would have said his first words and even have started understanding our native tongue, Bambara.

It’s a tradition in Mali to visit aunties, uncles, grandparents and family friends when you are in town. During one of our visits, my aunt called out to Isiaka saying “na yan.” You should have seen the smiles, looks of surprise and cheers when he approached my aunt who just asked him to do so.



Everyone was surprised that my son understood Bambara. It’s often said that language plays a significant role in shaping national identity and preserving cultural traditions. I strongly believe language is intrinsic to a culture – it’s our means to communicate values, customs and beliefs; it’s a means by which culture and traditions may be conveyed and preserved.


I love being a Liberian-Malian. I love that I speak Bambara and I’m able to connect with all Mandinkas through this language. I understand all variations of Mandinka - no matter the region. It’s beautiful the fact we are able to communicate even if we aren’t from the same country. It’s a universal connector of the Mandigos and I want my children to be part of that and experience what I feel when I’m in Mali, Senegal or Guinea.


“Being able to speak French will help my children in the future but preserving the languages of our people – the Mandingos and other Mandé peoples – is more important to me than preserving the language of the colonizers.”


The humidity slaps you in the face once you land in Bamako when it’s not the rainy season. The children could definitely tell that we weren’t in Seattle anymore because it was very hot. After being jet-lagged for several days, the children really started enjoying Bamako. They got to meet all of their cousins, aunties, and grandparents. They were spoiled by everyone. I felt that it was even more enjoyable for them because they understood everyone. They didn’t even want to come back to the US.






After returning to the US, we noticed that the children were expressive in Bambara. Before, we would speak Bambara to Isiaka and he would respond in both English and Bambara. Since returning to Seattle, when he’s spoken in Bambara, he responds in Bambara. Although Hawa is a toddler and Isiaka is a preschooler, they might not understand all of this but I hope they are as proud to be Malians as we are one day. I also hope they love the language of their people and would want to preserve it as their dad and I are doing right now.


“Everyone was surprised that

my son understood Bambara.”


“A dabila” meaning “stop it” is a phrase that’s constantly used in the house. We definitely overuse it to the point that the children tell us “a dabila mama or daddy” when they don’t want to stop playing to get ready for bed or to take a bath and they know exactly what it means.


“M’bi fe” was the last phrase we learned. It means “I love you” and it’s incredible hearing them say it to me in Bambara with their American accent.




Aïché Sissoko is a corporate communications specialist at Amazon based in Seattle, Washington. She enjoys hiking, museums, traveling and good food.


Twitter @itsaiche

Instagram @lamaliberienne




82 views1 comment

1 Comment

Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
Guest
Aug 18, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Big achievement, congratulations

Like
bottom of page