Soussou Language

The Family (Dembaya/Habilè) in Soussou

The Family (Dembaya/Habilè) in Soussou


Objective: To talk about members of the large family (“habilè”). Within Soussou culture, the family is not only the nexus of all activity, but also the basis of all polite interaction. Talking to someone is not just talking to them but interacting with them and their family. This lesson will be a way of talking about the extended family–which includes not only direct blood relations, but also friends and other people who you are in community with. This is a long web of people, but generally these people will come up in conversation. Perhaps more importantly as well, this lesson will give you the vocabulary to ask politely about other people’s extended family. This is a key point of politeness that will be essential for forging strong bonds with both new people you meet, as well as deepening older friendships.


Key vocabulary:

Dembaya –  Family (Often times, this is close to what one might call an immediate family)

Habilè – Family (This is something bigger than “immediate” and could perhaps include other

people in the community, including non-blood relations)

Nga – Mother

Ba/Baba – Father

Tara hamèma – Older brother

Tara guinèma – Older sister

Hougna hamèma – Younger brother

Hougna guinèma – Younger sister

Boré – Friend

Boré fagni – Best Friend

Tanou – Grandfather

Mama – Grandmother

Doumèdi – Child

Dorè – Newborn

Dekho – Cousin

Sokho – Uncle

Sokho guinè / Ténén – Aunt

Guinè – Wife (woman)

Hamè – Hubsand (man)

Döhöboré – Neighbors

Walikè bore – Colleagues/Coworkers


N’hougna guinè – My little sister

I’tara hamèma – Your big brother

A’boré – His friend


Sample Phrases:

I walikè boré go? – How are your colleagues?

Döhö boré go, tana mou e ma? – And the neighbors, are they doing well?

I ba go, a mou fourakhi? – And your father, is he in good health?

Habilè go, a biriin yalanki? – And your family, are they all in good health?

I khougna guinèma hili di? – What is your younger sister’s name?

A guinè, a hili di? – What is his wife’s name?

I nga hèbou n’bè – Please say hi to your mom for me!

Dembaya go, mihi mou fourakhi? – And your family, is everyone (every person lit.) in good health?

Maçongni bankhi firin ti n’gà bè anoun (nan ti ma) kérén n’ba bè. – Le maçon a construit deux maisons pour ma mère et une pour mon  père.



  • Asking about family is perhaps one of the most important parts of any greeting or saying goodbye. Making sure to ask people to say hi to their family for you, or asking about the wellbeing of the entire family is an essential part of any conversation.
  • Rushing into a conversation with asking these sorts of questions about a number of members of the family is considered rude. Usually, the process is done by starting by asking about the broad family, which is “dembaya.” In the strict sense of the word, there is no word for the nuclear family. “Dembaya” refers to a large grouping of people including aunts, uncles, cousins, and other family members related by blood. Asking about them as group is an important way to start a conversation.
  • This can be followed by asking about particular members of the family–especially those you know or those you have heard about. Traditionally, asking about one’s parents or spouse(s) is an important first question. (Note: I put spouses here because there are sometimes instances where men will have more than one wife).
  • Following, usually one asks about those who might constitute the “habilè,” or the extended African family. This includes neighbors and friends, including those who you have met or heard about. This sort of communal recognition and memory is considered important and respectful.
  • As an important cultural note here: Generally conversations, especially with the older generation, are not considered times of speed. In fact, one must take the time to slowly move through the family, or risk being seen critically as someone who is not only disrespectful, but decidedly outside of the cultural norms that characterize the society.



Along with your language mentor, you should try to think about your own ideas of family. Are you and your family close? What might be the differences between this, and the extended family that is discussed above? Think here also about why there might be a different sense of social cohesion.

Make sure to practice with your language mentor questions about the broader family. Although this seems like an easy task, those who are coming from the US often have a tendency to skip over these steps quite quickly or run out of things to say. This was definitely my own experience as a language learner. Make sure to take time to ask as many questions as you can about the broader family, including what their names are, where they live, how they are, how their health is, how their spouses are etc. Think about this as an extended exercise in creating a large family tree. Talk with your language mentor as well about the importance of family.

Make sure that you are able to identify the different members of the family easily, especially because certain names of family members might seem similar (including the words around siblings).


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Resources for Self-Instructional Learners of Less Commonly Taught Languages Copyright © by University of Wisconsin-Madison Students in African 671 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.