Two years ago, Jim Natsis, a West Virginia State professor and self-described Greek guy from St. Louis, propped up a mic on his ping-pong table in his Louisville basement to record a Zoom meeting on his laptop. The other participant on the call was Patrick Litanga, an Eastern Kentucky University professor from the Democratic Republic of Congo who sought asylum in America two decades ago. That night, over a shoddy Internet connection, the two talked about how their experience translating for two Louisville City soccer players and Natsis’ love for Louisville brought them together on this Zoom as friends. But, if you were eavesdropping, you might not have the slightest idea what they said. Well, unless you spoke French.
What started as a Zoom conversation led to “Récits Francophones au Coeur de l’Amérique” (or “Francophone Stories in the Heart of America” in English), a French-language, Louisville-based podcast series created by Natsis and Litanga.
In more than 40 episodes since that first Zoom call, Litanga and Natsis have put a spotlight on the French-speaking community in Louisville and beyond for Francophone listeners across the world.
“French connected us,” Litanga said. “So instead of it being private, we just took all this conversation that we used to cover and bottle it up into a place where many other people can participate.”
An Unlikely Friendship
Aside from their love of the French language, Natsis and Litanga are poles apart.
Despite growing up in a Greek family in Missouri, that heritage was hard for Natsis to embrace, with his family not encouraging that identity.
But then, in his 20s, Natsis found an adopted heritage in French.
After a trip to Europe in 1982, the French community felt more welcoming to Natsis, making him want to learn the language.
“I’m discovering more and more that French for me was a thing that I was able to kind of embrace as an adopted language of a heritage I couldn’t carry on,” he said. “I came back and wanted to learn French, and I had no ties to the French-speaking world or anything, and so I wanted to pass on to my kids and stuff determinedly.”
To teach his children, he began teaching free French classes for kids with a colleague at the Americana World Community Center in the South End’s Beechmont neighborhood.
That experience segued into Natsis teaching a Cercle Francais (a French-speaking circle open to the public) at the Iroquois Library in Louisville. There, in 2015, he met Litanga, who had just moved to Louisville to work at Kentucky Refugee Ministries and was looking to connect with the local French-speaking community.
Unlike Natsis, Litanga grew up speaking French in the Congo as a student. Litanga told LEO his life changed in his late teens at the start of the First Congo War in 1996 following Rwanda and Uganda’s armies invading the Congo to attack génocidaires — perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide — who had fled across the border.
“When the conflict began, life became really hard,” said Litanga, “My dad decided to leave. My aunts, my uncles, and a bunch of other family members decided to leave.”
His family left a 32-year dictatorship with the rise of a new government that “did not have enough time to put together a government.” Continuing war in the Congo would make it the deadliest conflict since World War II.
Conflict in the Congo would have a lasting effect on Litanga, who went on to pen a yet-to-be-published novel about the start of the Second Congo War in Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital, that he said explores “identity issues in the context of war.”
After his father and other family members escaped the conflict in the DRC, Litanga moved to South Africa with his uncle without speaking much English, but he knew that he had a more fulfilling life ahead of him. In his home country, “individuality wasn’t boosted. Your outcome as a person depended on the outcome of your family.”
Moving to South Africa, Litanga made a promise to himself: “I wanted to do something with myself.”
In 2003, after three years in South Africa, Litanga was resettled in the United States in his mid-twenties and moved to Lexington, where he would go on to study at the University of Kentucky.
When he met Jim more than a decade later, he had just moved to Louisville with his wife (a Louisville native) and was working at Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM), a non-profit that provides resettlement services for refugees in Kentucky, which Litanga was previously a “client” of when he first arrived.
A coworker directed Patrick to the Cercle Francais that Natsis led at the Iroquois Library.
“I wanted to connect with the French community here….So that’s how I showed up there and then we connected, and then ever since he [Natsis] can’t get rid of me now,” he said.
A Podcast With A Global Reach
Since starting the podcast, the two have covered topics ranging from the French-speaking amateur baseball league in Quebec to French cuisine in Louisville.
While they cover a lot of things, Litanga said he and Natsis are “not trying to be political” in their podcast. The uniting theme in their 44 episodes to date has always been the francophone community, a term coined for those who use French as their dominant language.
That focus has given them global reach; while they said their main podcast platform Buzzsprout does not provide statistics for how many plays or listeners the podcast has, they said it did tell them that 39% of their audience is outside the U.S.
Natsis and Litanga have spoken with people from all walks of francophone life, from people at Louisville libraries to Harvard professors and students in Quebec.
“We’re more and more getting into learning a hell of a lot and contributing to the base of knowledge around the whole conversation of identity and French,” said Natsis.
The duo interviewed young students about their experiences speaking French in other countries during a summit in Canada at the Centre de la francophonie des Amériques, a Quebec government-backed initiative that aims to build ties between the 33 million French speakers spread across North and South America. They interviewed two Francophone students, one from British Columbia and another from Chile, recording one episode before the summit and one afterwards.
They also recorded more light-hearted episodes where Natsis and Litanga walked around Louisville and asked people of all ages their favorite French word for a three-episode series. Children learning French in school said things like “je t’aime” or “bonjour,” while older generations of Francophones came up with more intricate phrases. One college student even sang the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” from memory.
“It was a very feel-good episode,” Litanga said.
The two have also talked about the French representation in other parts of the U.S. like Louisiana, an area that still has a large French-speaking population. In a two-part episode, Natsis and Litanga spoke to Joseph Dunn, the executive director of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) about the long-lasting impact of the language and its representation in the state.
“I didn’t know there was a community of communities here [in the U.S.] who are trying to reclaim their own heritage,” Litanga said about the conversation.
French in Louisville: “It’s Like A Private Kind Of Thing”
Despite its namesake from King Louis XVI of France, Louisville does not often embrace its French roots besides the symbolic fleur de lis dotting street signs and garbage cans.
But, Natsis said, the French connection is stronger than one might think.
“There’s so many people that speak French in America and don’t even know it,” Natsis said. He mentioned that he didn’t realize how many people in the Iroquois neighborhood spoke the language Natsis came to love until he hosted a Cercle Francais.
When Litanga moved to the city, it was difficult for him to find people who spoke his first language. He felt this might stem from a phenomenon immigrants experience coming to the U.S.
“As an immigrant, depending on our education, some of us want to immerse ourselves in the English-speaking environment so much that we neglect our French,” he said.
Litanga feels that neglecting French can lead to the language losing its importance.
“Even though there is a large amount of people here that speak French, it’s like a private kind of thing. It’s almost always in the margin,” he said. “My sister, she lives in Dallas. We only speak in English, which is really bizarre….We [immigrants] just think this language is not useful here, so why bring it to the public?”
Playing A Part In The Francophone Community
Litanga is thankful to the Cercle Francais for giving him the opportunity to meet more French speakers, and he hopes that the podcast can build a similar type of community.
“What we are trying to do is to be part of the Francophone and Francophile community here in Louisville and around the countries in the Americas,” he said.
The duo doesn’t make money off the podcast, nor do they promote it on social media. Natsis said they just do it because they love French and its community.
“We’re both passionately like this….So, we’re talking about how we started doing this, I’m seeing everything fall into place,” he said.
Natsis hopes his podcast makes French more easily accessible to those who want to learn it and to those who want to hear French in the media more consistently.
“From the U.S., nobody is doing it,” he said.
Récits Francophones au Coeur de l’Amérique is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, and anywhere else podcasts are typically available.