The Human Body: An Advanced Course in Patois

While serving as a PCV on the island of St. Lucia, I really enjoyed the opportunity to have a crack at learning another language, and had the chance to take extended Patios lessons alongside a fellow PCV and friend.  One of the most satisfying and amusing parts of my Patios lessons was learning seemingly inapplicable vocabulary that somehow extraordinarily enough found its way into everyday conversations.

One day, when my fellow PCV was disappointingly absent attending a meeting, leaving me for a one-on-one tutoring session with her roughly 60 year-old host mother, the topic at hand was parts of the body.  After learning how to say everything from under belly to the names of individual toes, which seemed like more than enough information to reasonably cover, I closed my notebook and started getting prepared to leave.  After all, getting home was contingent upon catching an evening bus to my community, which sometimes could be somewhat of a tricky feat.  Upon seeing I was preparing to leave, my Patois teacher, probably the sweetest, kindest, most religiously devout person on St. Lucia, looked at me like I was crazy and said, “eh eh, we’re not finished yet.” What followed was an equally comprehensive tutorial on all of the other parts of the body that we had somehow earlier neglected to delve into. After struggling to maintain my composure, I finally erupted into laughter when she proceeded to ask me, in all seriousness I might add, if I knew how to say “anus” in Patois. Upon observing my reaction, she asked me what was so funny, and went on to say that she really doesn’t understand why people (including her Kindergarteners) think that such things are laughing matters. Smiling, I told her I understood that this aspect of the lesson should be approached with utmost seriousness, but that I was just very curious as to when the next occasion would present itself for me to whip out “twou bonda” in a conversation.

Little did I know that the opportunity would arise a number of times, including a few short weeks later on a bus coming back from a Catholic youth crusade. On the return trip some real cheeky fellow kept passing the most terribly smelling gas. After the first couple of offences everybody kept silent, attempting to imagine that nothing was happening, but soon all the windows were wide open and everyone was vexed and accusing someone else of being responsible. After paying close attention to the Patois that was being spoken, I picked up enough to realize that they were speculating as to whether or not I, the “nonm blan” (white man), was the culprit. I defiantly responded, "Awa! Ou fou!" (no! you're crazy!), and then told them in English that I wasn't capable of producing such a rancid smell. A little while later, after my sense of smell was once again bombarded with a wave of vaporized rotten dasheen and green figs, I turned to my neighbor and, thinking fondly of Patois lessons of past, sternly told him, "Tjenbe twou bonda ou!" (Hold your anus!).  The bus erupted in laughter.  I later found out that they were laughing not only because they would never have expected me to say those words in Patois, but also because what I said, while understood in context, didn't quite translate.  While in the States we might tell someone to "hold" their gas in, in Patois I had told the guy to physically grab his anus.  Hmmm...

So, sincerest of thanks to my language instructor for refusing to let me compromise my knowledge of the human body in Patois, and for showing me that the “twou bonda” certainly is not a laughing matter.  As they say in the Caribbean, it’s a "serious ting."

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.