Sango, alongside with French, is the official language of the Central African Republic. This is unusual in sub-Saharan Africa, as many countries only have an European colonial language as their official language (like Togo, Gabon, or Mozambique) since it’s an effective lingua franca and prevents favouring one local language over another.
But in CAR, Sango has official status on the same level as French – mainly because almost the entire population speaks it, and it doesn’t “belong” to any one ethnic group. Sango is a creole, based originally off Ngbandi, but had been used as a trade language along the Ubangi river long before French colonization.
When the French founded Bangui as a trading hub on the Ubangi, Sango became the de facto language of the city, leading to a growing population that spoke it as their first language. While census data is spotty today, it remains a common first language in Bangui, and around 90% of CAR’s population can speak Sango as either a first or second language.
French still remains a prestige language and the language of higher education (as it is in the rest of former French Africa, including north Africa), and that also affects spoken Sango – the more formal the situation, the more French loanwords people use.
Bengali is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. If you go by total speakers, it’s the 7th most spoken, and if you only look at native speakers, it’s the 5th most spoken language (and has way more native speakers than widespread languages like French). Speakers are almost all concentrated in Bengal, both on the Indian and Bangladeshi side, and the fight to make Bengali an official language beside Urdu was a big spur in that Bengali nationalism that led to the eventual breakup of the two Pakistans in 1971.
Bengali is the easternmost Indo-European language (or depending how you cut it, Assamese is, but the point stands). I love the evolution of languages, it’s like the evolution of species, and the spread of the Indo-European family always blows my mind. English and Bengali both descended the same Proto-Indo-European language spoken only about 5000 years ago in the Eurasian steppe – as well as almost every other language spoken between the North Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
It’s also hard to wrap my head around the fact that Bengali is more closely related to English than it is to Burmese, spoken right next door in Myanmar. (And likewise, that Swedish is more closely related to Bengali than it is to Finnish). Here’s a really interesting video on the Indo-European language family, and how people reconstruct Proto-Indo-European:
Bengali has a reputation as a poetic and “sweet” sounding language. There’s actually a lot of linguistic work that goes into why people perceive languages as sweet or harsh – it’s called sound symbolism – but this Indian video gives a good look at what about Bengali makes people perceive it as sounding sweet.
There’s also some fun slang in Bengali – this article on “The funky side of Bangla” from the Dhaka Tribune gives a primer on slang used in Bangladesh. I really like these ones:
Fatafati – awesome!
Toofan – lit. “tempest”, but means you’re totally supportive of something
Chokh palti – turncoat
Osthir – lit. “restless” but is used for positive things the same way “sick” is
I got fooled several times looking for interesting podcasts from Bangladesh – there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but while the titles and descriptions are in English, the podcasts themselves are most often in Bengali – you don’t find that out until you’ve already downloaded and started to listen! While English is used in higher education in Bangladesh, despite/because of the colonial history (see French in Algeria), it doesn’t serve as a lingua franca like it does in India, as the vast majority of Bangladesh’s population speaks Bengali. That means a lot of podcasts and interviews with Bangladeshis in English are from outside sources, especially India or Britain.
Cricket with an Accent: Mohammad Isam talks about the Bangladesh Cricket Landscape – I still have only the vaguest sense of the rules of cricket, but this interview with a Bangladeshi sports journalist is less on the game itself, and more on Bangladesh’s struggles to build an internationally strong cricket team, and how money and political influence play a big part in professional cricket and sports journalism in the country.
Naan Curry with Sadaf and Archit: How to eat like a Bangladeshi with Dina Begum – Another cross-border interview, this one between Indian and Bangladeshi food experts. They cover the differences between the cuisines of West Bengal (Indian side, around Calcutta) and East Bengal (Bangladesh), as well as Pakistan, and how options for South Asian cuisine are slowly diversifying in Western countries.
Desi Crime Podcast: Hercules: The Vigilante Killer – If you’re a true crime fan, this podcast covers all kinds of stories from across the subcontinent. This episode looks at the case of a vigilante killer in Bangladesh murdering men who had assaulted young women, with a larger discussion on police corruption, the crisis levels of rape in South Asia, the pressures on victims’ families, and the ethics of vigilantes.
Bangladeshi Trailblazers – Interviews with Bangladeshi entrepreneurs, with a focus on young female entrepreneurs. I listened to the episode Finding spaces in Dhaka with Farhia Tabassum, who co-founded the app Chaya, which is like an AirBnB but for photoshoot locations, and then has expanded into rentals for individuals, especially women.
The World: Tintin in Bangladesh – A short, fun podcast with radio personality Zahidul Haque Apu, who during the pandemic started drawing covers for fictional Tintin books set in Bangladesh. While Tintin never visited Bangladesh (he did go to India, Nepal, and China, among others), these are fun what-ifs. The podcast also touches on comics in Bangladesh, where Tintin is particularly beloved, to the point where people assume it’s a local comic (old colonial stereotypes aside). I loved Tintin comics as a kid – these are just great.
Spiced milk tea is a staple across the Indian subcontinent – it goes by many names but a common Bengali one is masala dudh cha – “dudh” is Bengali for milk. I found a big bag of Mirzapore black tea from Bangladesh (it’s one of the largest tea producers in the world) – it’s fannings – small pieces, nearly ground up in terms of texture.
I normally take my tea black, so this is a little bit more complicated than filling a mug from the kettle, but it’s still easy. I used this recipe from Bangladeshi Food Recipe – it’s a really lovely spice mix of cardamom, ginger, black pepper, cinnamon, bay leaf, and cloves. It calls for cow milk (as opposed to water buffalo milk – hard to get in Ottawa anyways), and I used about half the sugar.
It turned out quite tasty – I was afraid boiling the tea that long would make it tannic, but there’s no bitterness, just a blend of milk tea and gentle spices in the background. A nice way to start the day!
Of course, while the preparation is different, this drink is basically the same as what we call “chai” or “chai tea” in North America. However, chai/cha is just the word for tea itself in South Asian languages – so there’s always someone who will be pedantic and point out that “chai tea” means “tea tea”. I’d argue that cultural context makes a difference, since if you order a chai here in Canada, you’ll get something very different than ordering a cup of tea.
Almost every language today calls tea some variation of either “tea” or “cha” – there’s a lot of history behind the two words and why each language uses it:
I stopped by Ottawa Pierogies, a little gem of a Ukrainian deli, for some lunch to go. While I was there, I got a bit of a language lesson – while pierogies is the term used in Canada, that’s actually the Polish name. The Ukrainian name is varenyky. Likewise, when I ordered some pyrizhkhy to go, they were sold under the name perojki – possibly a Polish name as well (Canada has almost as big a Polish population as Ukrainian). So while this restaurant is Ukrainian, like many other places in Canada, it uses the Polish names for Ukrainian foods.
I picked up their “Baba’s Visit” platter – pierogies and cabbage roll of my choice, with sour cream and a vinegret salad (beet, potato, and sauerkraut). I went for the potato and cheddar pierogies, boiled and then lightly pan-fried, with a pork and meat cabbage roll. They were really really good, tender and hot pierogies, and the vinegret satisfied my beet cravings. (I made a related salad, rosolli, when I covered Finland).
I also took home two pyrizhky – hand rolls stuffed with fillings, eaten hot. I got a nice but not exciting pork and rice one, and a really good tangy potato and mushroom one. They also had frozen pierogies in less common fillings, plus other treats, so I took some home for later – but that’s for another day, I’m carb’d out!
This month is the first month I’m choosing the country deliberately, instead of at random. This month, I’ll be learning more about Ukraine. With the Russian invasion in February and the war still ongoing, Ukraine is already very much in the news. I’m hoping to get beyond the headlines and learn more about the country’s culture and history this month.
So, what do I already know about Ukraine?
Of course, with Russian invasion, we’ve all had a major crash course in Ukraine’s relationships with Russia, Europe, and NATO. We’ve seen the awful bombing, fighting, and war crimes in cities like Kyiv, Mariupol, Kharkiv, the rise of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a war leader, the bravery and resistance of Ukrainians, and the larger geopolitical ramifications of Russia becoming an international pariah. Here’s a really good primer from early March:
Here in Canada, we are a deeply pro-Ukrainian country, and have been for decades across the political spectrum. Canada actually has the largest Ukrainian population in the world outside of Ukraine itself and Russia (at least before the displacement of millions of Ukrainian refugees into Europe this year).
The Ukrainian connection is most deeply felt in the Canadian prairies, with Ukrainian-Canadians making up 10% of Alberta, 13% of Saskatchewan, and 15% of Manitoba’s population. I grew up in Alberta, and Ukrainian culture is so ingrained there that pierogies are a basic staple food, as common in grocery stores as pasta or sandwiches, and my family in Saskatchewan learned Ukrainian because it helps with work and with community events.
Canada is also one of the few countries that recognize the Holodomor as an official genocide, and our Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is Ukrainian. She was banned from both the Soviet Union and Russia for her pro-democracy work in Ukraine in the 80s and 90s and her investigations as a journalist into Russian oligarchs after the fall of the USSR. When Russia invaded Ukraine, sentiment ran high here – Canada has supplied weapons, funds, helped gather allies, and …changed the street sign in front of the Russian embassy.
However, while I’m not going to put the current war or Canada’s connection with Ukraine totally aside this month, I really want to focus on Ukraine as a country itself – I’m planning to lean more into art and culture from Ukraine, including popular culture, film, music, and literature. Pierogies, borscht, and cabbage rolls are already familiar staples, but I also really want to dig deeper into Ukrainian cuisine. And I know Easter has already passed, but I want to take a crack at making pysanky – I’ve always wanted to try.
Addendum: A note on spelling. I’m following the linguistic shift that has happened recently in the West. We now use the Ukrainian spelling and pronunciation for names, rather than the Russian. This is shift started around 2019 with a campaign by the Ukrainian government, but really solidified with the Russian invasion this year. While it is definitely political, it also reflects a larger shift of respecting what countries wish to be called – Czechia instead of Czech Republic, Eswatini instead of Swaziland, and Côte d’Ivoire instead of Ivory Coast.
So Kiev is now Kyiv, Lvov is now Lviv, and Zelenskyy is spelled with two Ys (though one Y is also common, but not the Russian ending of “-ski”). There’s a few names that I’m keeping the old Russian spelling, specifically Chernobyl (instead of Chornobyl), since it’s so well known by that name.
A good mix of podcasts from and about Gabon, both in English and French.
WNYC Studios Radiolab: Breaking Bongo (En) – Probably one of the best podcasts I’ve listened to in a while, because it really got me thinking about a serious ethical grey area in politics and media. New York-based journalists interview democracy activists and political opponents of the Bongo regime in the Gabonese diaspora. The podcast gives a great background to the contested 2016 election, where Bongo almost lost to opponent Jean Ping were it not for one province’s rigged vote, the violence and crackdown following the election, Bongo’s health crisis in 2019 and the New Year’s greeting video, the attempted coup, and how the activists try to oppose the government from afar. However, where it gets very very interesting, is that the activists are increasingly turning to dubious methods – starting unfounded rumours of Bongo’s death, doctoring reports, creating “Fake News” – in order to create further confusion and undermine Bongo’s rule. The journalists ask some of the really hard questions here – this was a movement that started out providing truthful reporting and pushing for openness and democracy; is it not threatening its own reliability and legitimacy by resorting to these methods? But at the same time, when the regime is willing to use the same tools, as well as violence, wrongful detention, and censorship to crush you, do you not do everything in your power to fight them?
Africa in my Kitchen: Gabon – Odika (En) – I probably should have listened to this podcast before my disastrous attempt at odika chicken. The podcast covers Gabonese cuisine, and gets into cooking with odika. The hosts, Ijeoma and Yemi (who are both of Nigerian origin) are split on cooking with odika/ogbono – it’s apparently a very “acquired taste” and texture, even when fresh.
In 1984, Naida Glavish, a telephone operator at a post office in Auckland, was ordered to stop answering the phone with “kia ora”, a Maori greeting, after a complaint. The story hit the press, and eventually the post office backed down once the Prime Minister took her side. The incident spurred a national discussion on the use of te reo Maori, and became part of a larger movement to revitalize the language. Here’s a brief history:
Te reo seems to be really widespread nowadays – it’s really a success story for the revitalization of Indigenous languages. There’s a lot of media out there in te reo, it’s an official language of New Zealand (though there isn’t official bilingualism), and it’s taught in schools – though not compulsory. Maori names and words pop up in English (like Aotearoa) and kia ora seems to have become a default greeting for anyone.
However, not everyone is happy about the increasing presence of te reo – not only have people filed official complaints about the use of the language on air, the number of complaints has increased to the point where the Broadcasting Standards Authority had to issue a blanket statement last year that it would not investigate complaints of this type.
There also have been complaints about the use of the term Pakeha to describe non-Maori New Zealanders, especially those of European descent – there are misconceptions about what the term means, including myths that it means “pig skin” or that it’s intended to be a slur.
There’s a huge number of New Zealand podcasts to choose from – I’m overwhelmed just by the offerings from RNZ, Aotearoa’s public broadcaster. Much like the CBC here in Canada, they’ve really dedicated themselves to supporting podcasts, and there’s everything from standard radio shows and news to mini-series to really experimental stuff. The following are all RNZ podcasts, I’ll see if I can get to other podcasts as well this month!
The Aotearoa History Show – A 14-part podcast (with a video version on Youtube) covering the entire history of New Zealand – Maori settlement of the islands, the arrival of Europeans, the Musket Wars, the Treaty of Waitangi (and how it was subsequently ignored), the New Zealand Wars, the arrival of refrigeration and how it saved the New Zealand economy, how land and sovereignty was taken from the Maori, the World Wars, the post-war period, and a drunken Prime Minister calling a snap election. Just a generally excellent overview of the whole sweep in 20 minute bites; I really recommend listening to the whole thing.
Great Ideas – A series of podcasts that brings in experts from universities across New Zealand to talk about “big ideas”. I listened to “Every Language is a World” about linguistics, translation, and linguistic determinism – what does it mean when you have a specific word in your language for a concept?
This Way Up: seismic stories – The final episode of a long-running RNZ show, this podcast stitches together archival audio from three different post-earthquake bike trips by the presenter. The first was through Christchurch shortly after the 2011 earthquake, the second from a year later, and the third through a town called Kaikoura after a 2016 earthquake. The presenter also lives in the region and has been affected by the quakes, and gives the people he meets a chance to speak as they try to put their lives and livelihoods back together.
Fight for the Wild – A four-part series looking at the Predator Free 2050 plan and the losses to biodiversity New Zealand has faced since the introduction of rats, possums, and stoats to the islands. The first episode looks at the unique biology of New Zealand wildlife, which evolved without land predators or mammals (apart from some bats), and how it was devastated by the arrival of humans and their animals. The following episodes look at attempts at pest control, Maori perspectives, and the economic effects of the plan. It would be interesting to compare with my home province of Alberta: the only place in the world to successfully eradicate rats completely.
Widows of Shuhada – A short series following four women, all of whom were widowed in the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. They talk about the grieving process, their lives before and after, how the Muslim community in Christchurch responded to the murders, and how they continue with their lives and their faith. The host of the podcast is also a Muslim woman from Christchurch – she herself had grown up attending the mosque, and knew many of the victims. It’s a deeply personal and sensitive series.
When we think about New Zealand, we mainly just think about the North and South Islands, but there are others, including inhabited ones. Here’s a long-form slice of life documentary about life on the Chatham Islands – a series of small, extremely remote islands. They’re so remote that, while they are an integral part of Aotearoa, residents refer to the main islands as “New Zealand”. The way they build community and live with the isolation really reminds me of Newfoundland outports or the Arctic, though comparatively more temperate in weather!
What really caught my eye was the statue of Tame Horomona Rehe (Tommy Solomon), believed to be the last Moriori person of unmixed ancestry. The Moriori are the indigenous people of the Chatham Islands, who diverged from the Maori on the main islands around 1500. After initial inter-tribal wars, the Moriori came to a commitment to pacifism under Nunuku’s Law. Unfortunately, this peace and relative isolation was shattered in the 1800s, when Maori began arriving following the Musket Wars – brutal inter-iwi wars fuelled by English weapons. The Maori seized much of the Moriori land and the combination of massacres and enslavement is known as the Moriori genocide – only about 100 Moriori survived. Most Maori later returned to New Zealand, and were replaced by white settlers.
Moriori culture has undergone a revival, especially in asserting culture, connections to the land, and debunking the very myth that they had been fully wiped out, which was taught for decades in New Zealand schools. Trips are organized to bring those with Moriori ancestry together to build on their cultural practices and knowledge, as well as protecting the traditionally carved living trees on the island:
While the Moriori language no longer has native speakers, there are efforts to revive and use the language – including this beautiful lullaby, E PōPō Tchimiriki (lyrics and translation in the vid’s description).
In 2020 a treaty settlement was signed between the Moriori and the New Zealand government, which both aimed to redress historical wrongs caused by both Pakeha and Maori, and give formal recognition to the Moriori. Here’s an interesting news clip from New Zealand’s Maori-language public broadcaster (with English subtitles) – it’s notable what is not mentioned: