Wordcatcher Tales: Binga, Befam

The dusty dirt road from Lolodorf to Ebolowa was only 107 km long, but it took us three hours to cover the distance in our hired Toyota sedan, over ten years old and without air-conditioning, so we often had to choose between keeping the dust out and the heat in, or letting some dust in to get some fresh air. By the time we reached the outskirts of Ebolowa, we were ready for a refreshing lunch stop in as nice a restaurant as we could find, so we began asking people on the street to direct us to the nearest hotel, which turned out to the brand-new, European-standard Florence Hôtel. (We found out too late that we would have had many more choices had we driven into the city center first.)

We felt out-of-place from the moment we entered the front gates and noticed the newer Mercedes and Land Cruiser parked inside. The feeling only increased as our parched and dusty party of four were ushered to a linen-covered table with fine silverware opposite a wooden bar counter with a premium selection of duty-free-shop liquors on the wall behind it. Despair mounted as we perused the menu. The cheapest main dish cost 4,000 francs CFA (< 10 USD), and the price of the table d’hôte buffet set out for a banquet meeting then underway of visiting dignitaries from the Société Nationale d’Investissement du Cameroun was 12,000 francs CFA.

We finally settled on vegetable soups for starters and fruit plates for dessert (each about 2,000 francs), with nothing in between, and bottled water to drink. Our waiter was pleasantly accommodating and even brought us extra water at no charge. He very likely assumed we were missionaries, especially after we quizzed him about the words that marked the women’s and men’s rooms, binga and befam, respectively. (It was like seeing wahine and kane on the restroom doors of a French brasserie in Honolulu.) The restrooms were otherwise to European standard, spotlessly clean, with hot and cold running water, airjet hand driers, and toilet paper. In fact, they were the nicest restrooms we used during our two weeks in Cameroon.

We stopped later in the afternoon at the Repere Bar on the outskirts of Yaoundé in order for our driver and my brother belatedly to eat their main courses, beef stew with manioc and rice, respectively, for 500 francs each, while my wife and I each had a large bottle of Guinness, for 900 francs each. (The facilities there were rather more basic.)

The language we had encountered on the doors was Bulu, a dialect of the Beti language group widely spoken across the rain forests of southern Cameroon and neighboring countries. The current president of Cameroon, Paul Biya, comes from the Beti-speaking region. According to our Florence Hôtel waiter, binga means ‘women’ and minga means ‘woman’, while befam means ‘men’ and fam means ‘man’ (a near homophone of French femme). Speakers of Castilian or Catalan can get a taste of the closely related Fang dialect online.

This kind of distinction is typical of Bantu languages, which mark different noun classes with prefixes that distinguish singular from plural in the case of count nouns. Or at least they do so in Narrow Bantu, if not so regularly in Wide Bantu (or Bantoid) languages. In fact, the word bantu means ‘people’, while muntu means ‘person’. And that’s why so many placenames in parts of Cameroon start with Ba-.

The most memorable introduction to this phenomenon that I’ve ever read was a passage in African Language Structures (U. California Press, 1974) by William Everett Welmers, who on p. 160 applies Bantu noun class and concord systems to words borrowed from English:

KiSwahili
kipilefti ~ vipilefti ’roundabout(s), traffic circle(s)’
digadi ~ madigadi ‘fender(s)’ (< mudguard)

KeRezi (a fictional Bantu language)
mudigadi ~ badigadi ‘bodyguard(s)’
mutenda ~ batenda ‘bartender(s)’
matini ‘martini’ (with ma- marking mass nouns for liquids)

UPDATE: We’re back from Cameroon and will have more tales to tell, but only after finishing taxes, posting more photos, and hitting the road for another week of travel.

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Filed under Cameroon, food, language, NGOs, travel

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