Learning to Count


Ifo, Ihinka, Ihinza, Itaci, Igu, Iddu, Iyye, Ihaku, Iyagga, Iway

If you just read the words above, you have counted to 10 in Zarma. Well done!

One of the merchants is tired of talking to me en francais. He wants me to learn Zarma.


I have to tell you that I pray to God for clarity while I draw on my head covering as I exit the van – so that I can think clearly in French. So, moving from English, bypassing French, and speaking in Zarma – for me that’s like going from walking to bypassing riding my bike (which still has training wheels!) to piloting a plane. There is a reason you begin language school in a country other than the country of your ministry, and it’s because language learners are offensive. They get frustrated and act like jerks – their human side comes out and sometimes they blow their witness. Love? Down the poubelle, right after trust and humor exited, somewhere during the 1,978th mistake.

My plan this year is to solidify my French. Amadou doesn’t know this. He’s just tired of talking to me in French, especially if I’m going to keep showing up every week. So, he has decided that we will begin with my learning to count to 10. He not only tells me how to count to 10, he instructs me to “prends ton Bic!” (For those of you who heard the old commercials “flick your Bic” you can understand why the word for pen in Niger is not the French word “stylo” it’s Bic, like how we say, “Can you hand me a Kleenex?” instead of “a tissue.”) He tells me to be sure to write down what he tells me and practice before I come back next week. Then, he takes my pen and writes the digits 1 through 10 on my paper. At least he is instructing me in French. That counts, right?

I want to mention that since I arrived in Niger, what’s been amazing to me is the mental math ability of my vendors. I can buy a demi-tasse of tomatoes, two kilos of potatoes, bell peppers by the single count (200 cfa par poivron, sept pour moi), two kilos of apples and another demi-tasse of oignons and the vendor can tell me how much I owe in a few seconds. When I come up with a total (at least 10 seconds after him!), there are only two possibilities – either it matches or I am wrong. Truly, if the totals don’t match we find the error in my math every time. Now, after my language lesson, I have found one of their secrets!

In Zarma, the number system is based on 5s. As soon as I began to write down and examine what Amadou told me, I exclaimed, “Oh, c’est dans les cinqs!” which was probably a terrible way to say, “oh I see a pattern in your counting and it has to do with the number 5!” But, because people here are very gracious, he beamed at me, “Oui! Tres bien!” Every large number is a denomination of 5 (5, 500, 5000) multiplied by 1-9. So, the word for 2000 is really 500 times 4. But, he’s not done with my lesson.

He also wants me to learn how to say “How are you?” and “I’m fine.” And, because I know many of you are educators or life-long learners – you get this mini lesson.

I’m ready to learn Zarma – or at least four words in Zarma.

*Ma-te-ga-ham – how are you?

*Ma ta foo – how is your family?

*Baani Samey – I’m well.

*Remember to say your a’s like the French, as in AHA! (like a eureka moment, only don’t shout).


I think what Amadou likes is that whenever I go to his shop, the little boys stop and listen to us. They don’t speak French. It’s Zarma for them. French is the language taught to those who go to school. But, these boys listen. Two of them are busy working, pulling up the truly UBIQUITOUS black plastic bags that have lodged their way into the ground in front of the stall. They dig and pull them out of the dirt and clear the walkway. It is difficult work, kind of like trying to get dandelions out by their roots and ending up with the plant hanging from your hand while you stare at the roots protruding from the ground, knowing they are ready to grow into another dandelion as soon as you turn your back. I think the black bags multiply just like dandelions. The path in front of them sprouts tufts of black bags everywhere you cast your gaze.

Once my lesson starts, the boys stop working and listen as Amadou instructs me. They smile at my lack of knowledge, at my faltering attempt to say the words how Amadou says them. My teacher can write the digits, but he has me write the letters phonetically so that I can practice saying them on my own.

The boys laugh a little at my attempts to say “mategaham?” Since the language is tonal, and I have been repeating it like a question – my way of asking if I am pronouncing it right – I have been saying it wrong. However, it’s funny what happens when you feel like small children think you’re not too bright. I say “Mategaham” in a slow, neutral tone and, I have it! I guess the trick is to have little boys laugh at you so that you feel challenged. Then the human competitive side of me shines out like a star.

Can’t someone just invent an upload so I don’t have to work so hard? But, then, where would our relationships be? Probably in the dirt with those darn black plastic bags. It’s surprising that Amadou will take this time with me. But, he does, and he is not impatient. This is such a sweet part of Nigerien culture, people take time to do what they need to do, and the people standing in line don’t get angry, roll their eyes, sigh, or seem in any way irritated or impatient.

Please pray for Niamey as Niger is going through some huge changes. If you don’t read French, put it into google translate. It’s worth reading to understand how changing what has always been done can be so challenging for everyone involved.


One thought on “Learning to Count

  1. You’re such a good writer, Julie. I’m really enjoying your blogs! The counting by 5’s thing is only for money. So 100 is really 500 cfa. I am always amazed how not only can the vendors add up all of your order in their head, they can deal with four or five people at a time. I would have to have everybody stand in a line and then use a calculator and even then probably still get it wrong!


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