Just 5 days ago the NYtimes ran an article about Mali’s successful response to its first confirmed case of Ebola. Unfortunately the congratulatory tone seemed a bit premature; Mali had a second seemingly separate outbreak emerge just days later.
From the Times’ perspective one of the interesting things that Mali’s outbreaks highlight is the fact the country has not closed its border with Guinea, “its Ebola-affected neighbor” that has thousands of confirmed cases of the disease. On their account, this decision is attributable on one hand to impossibility; Mali and Guinea share a border that is hundreds of Mali’s long and there are hundreds of dirt path. On the other, the decision stems from “an honored Malian principle of diatiguiya”.
Pushing aside the urgent and tragic side of this Ebola outbreak, here I want to expand on the Times’ discussion of so-called Malian diatiguiya.
First, diatiguiya is a French-style spelling of what would more accurately be written jatigiya (jàtigiyá with full tone marking or ߖߊ߬ߕߌ߯ߦߊ in N’ko). The word itself is Manding and is identical in the major Manding varieties of Bambara, Maninka and Jula and thereby spelled the same regardless of the country. Why the French-spelling then? Many Manding-speakers do not actually know or regularly use the official orthographies for their language. As such, in many cases when people wish to write out Manding (such in the name of a restaurant or a store or in a text message) they simply use French-style spelling conventions to write out the word. The Times’ spelling likely stems from this practice (either the reporter’s or their contact’s). Unfortunately, French-style spelling is a horrible pronunciation guide for an Anglophone audience whereas Manding spelling read out loud by an English-speaker normally sound halfway decent.
The Times remedies this problem by offering a pronunciation guide “JAH-tih-GEE” that is on the right track but actually omits the final syllable of the word! Trying to use their approximating guide for Americans, something like “JAH-tigi-YA” would be more accurate. Why this mistake though? I’d argue that it doesn’t come from forgetting a syllable but form the fact that the word jàtígiya is actually a derived noun that comes form combining a noun jàtígi with the suffix –ya.
A jàtígi in Manding can simply be glossed as ‘host’; though culturally as the article highlights the idea of a host in Manding/Malian/Sahelian society may be quite different from that which we have in the West. The suffix –ya in this case represents abstraction and can mostly simply be glossed as ‘the state of’. In this sense –ya is similar to some suffixes that we regularly use in English –hood or –ness. So the Times rightly discusses jàtigiyá or ‘the state/condition of being a host’ but unfortunately got mixed up in their discussion and provided the pronunciation guide for ‘host’ jàtígi when they are in fact discussing how the Manding conception of being a host has allegedly lead to the border not being closed.
Let’s for broke though; where does jàtígi come from? Jàtígi itself seems to be a compound noun: jà-tígi. Tígi in Manding can be glossed as ‘owner/master’; it is regularly combined with other nouns in the streets of Bamako or Bobo-Dioulasso for things like jítigi ‘water owner’ (for a person walking around selling cold water) or dùgutígi ‘chief (of a village)’. What is the jàtígi master of then? Jǎ seems that it could either be interpreted as 1) jǎ ‘shadow/silhouette’ which by extension also means ‘spirit/soul’ or 2) jǎ ‘hospitality’ which itself would stem from the verb (ka) jǎ ‘host/put up’. So all together jàtígi ‘host’ could be understood literally as coming from something like ‘keeper of (one’s) soul’ or ‘keeper of hospitality’ depending on one’s linguistic interpretation.
The Times suggests that this principle is a time-honored Malian practice and that it stems back to the time when Mali was the core of a “great West African empire”. This dual characterization obscures the fact that jàtígiya is not Malian but Manding and that a large part of Guinea considers itself Manding and as part of the original core of the empire referred to by historians as Mali (which the modern-day State adopted as its name but which is referred to as Màndén by Manding speakers). So yes, jàtigiyá explains in part the desire to keep the door between Mali and Guinea open but not because of a Malian desire to help and host strangers but also because many Malians and Guineans speak what they regard as a mutually-intelligible language and view themselves as sharing a common Manding history and identity. Nonetheless while the term jàtigiyá is Manding, I’d wager that it’s more broadly a Sahelian concept and that there are easy 1-to-1 glosses between Manding varieties and other regional languages (I’d love to learn some in the comments!). It may be the case that a Sahelian concept of jàtigiyá could itself stem from the empire that had it’s core between Guinea and Mali but spread across much of the West Africa.
Either way, I love that the Times ran multiple paragraphs about a Manding word and now let’s hope that we can all embrace a bit of ‘keeper of hospitality-ness’ in fighting both the disease and the stigma of Ebola.
[Update 11/15/2014 14:25 — Thanks to Valentin Vydrin for a correction on where the Low tone shifts to High on jàtigiyá.]