UND language instructor from nation of Togo brings innovative cultural perspective to campus

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University of North Dakota


For Amoussa Koriko, helping comes naturally. But, the University of North Dakota language instructor and playwright notes, the impulse to lend a helping hand doesn't always translate very well.

"In my culture, helping people, especially the elderly, is a natural part of how we grow up," said Koriko, a native of Togo, a small nation in West Africa—part of a group of countries colonized by the French. "But here, I've had elderly people act scared if they see someone like me—a black man—reach out to help them, for example, to cross the street or carry a heavy bag. They think you're going to take their bag and run away."

Also, Koriko pointed out, in Togo culture, folks aren't supposed to look directly into another person's, especially an older person's, eyes—downcast gaze is the norm, or else one will be perceived as challenging the older person. "We don't use first names as easily, either. We're more formal"

"But here, if you don't look someone in the eyes, they immediately think you're being shifty or insincere," Koriko says.

Koriko, who laughs easily about these cultural misunderstandings, says that's why he wants to share his culture with others and learn lots more about the culture he's living in. Koriko teaches beginning French in the UND Department of Modern & Classical Languages & Literatures, classes in which he blends grammar and spelling with vignettes about the cultures of Togo and other French-speaking West African nations. Koriko this fall also is teaching West African culture class through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UND.

Multiculturalism is much more than a "politically correct" word for Koriko, who founded the African Arts Arena to share African arts and cultures through presentations in schools and in the community.

"Oh, yes, it's a way of life for me," said Koriko, who grew up speaking French—the colonial language—and several tribal languages and dialects. "After sharing my story in plays under a pseudonym in Togo—we had to be careful about what we said under the Togo regime—I was fortunate to go to France to study and work in the government-supported French National Theater. There I could confidently sign my own name to my own work, as I can here."

"When I was growing up in a suburb of Lomé, the capital city of Togo, there were people from all over the region, including English-speaking Ghana—it was very multicultural," said Koriko, who came to the United States under a U.S. lottery visa program. "It was easy for us growing up there to pick up three, four, or more cultures and languages. As youngsters, elders from many cultures would ask us in their own language to get water for them or whatever—and we were able to quickly sort out their meaning. We didn't learn every language fluently, but we sure understood them."

Religious multiculturalism also is natural for Koriko.

"Yes, I had a three-in-one religious upbringing—I was born Muslim, went to a Catholic school, and had a grandmother who was a traditional priest," Koriko said.

Koriko, who came to Fargo in 2004, has been writing, directing, and producing plays for 10 years, including theater productions at North Dakota State University, where he immersed himself in the English language and got a degree in Theater Arts and French.

"In my courses, including what I'm doing for OLLI @ UND this fall, my intention is to integrate what we learn as new Americans with helping people here to understand where we're coming from," said Koriko, who holds a master's degree in linguistics and communication. "I believe that understanding goes both ways—it's not just about us as new Americans understanding American cultures, it's about sharing our cultures with Americans, helping people here understand new Americans."