Things That Make You Go, “Hmm”

As I settled into my metal folding chair (is this even possible?), I tried to quiet my brain. My dear niece is having a very unsettling second pregnancy, and I am preoccupied with wondering if my phone will ding an update. My aunt has just had to move her husband into a nursing home, and I am far away unable to hug her or offer any comfort. My son is 5,000 miles away, and doing so great at college (!) – but we still wish he was here. If he’s not wandering around in my brain, he’s in Ken’s. Yet, we are here tonight to get a better understanding of Nigerien culture. There is a speaker, Mr. Hama, who happens to be Sabrina’s French 2 teacher – and if he were in the States people would be staring at him. He is from the regal Songhai tribe, the largest empire in pre-colonial Africa. His dress is formal, and if my internet wasn’t quite so stinky, I would send you a picture. He is very striking – all in white, with pants and a loose-fitting “shirt” that touches to the knee when he is sitting. The shirt and his cap have beautifully stitched embroidery in black and reddish orange. Mr. Hama speaks Zarma, French, Hausa, and English.

As the room of newbies (this is our last Thrive meeting!) gets quiet, Mr. Hama begins. There are some cultural norms that he shares that we Americans find just plain weird.

Do not look people in the eye, unless you are challenging them! If you continue to look someone in the eye during your conversation, you are showing you are an uneducated person.

Whenever you see someone, greet them and ask them how they are doing. Even if you see them several times a day – do not be like a cat and just give them a smile. When he was explaining this, Mr. Hama looked at the couple who head our group, John and Nancy. They both speak Zarma. He asked them, “musu?” Nancy laughed and said, “yes, exactly, cat.” How Mr. Hama says “musu” sounds just like a cat’s meow. I tried to replicate it under my breath and count it as a fail. Mr. Hama tells us that though he is a grown man, if his mother saw how he walked by people in the hallway at school with a simple nod and hello and didn’t stop to have a conversation, she would slap him!

Do not smell the produce! Americans are so strange; they actually smell food before buying it! This is WRONG here. When Mr. Hama first showed his lunch to people and they smelled it – honestly, he didn’t even want to eat it anymore. The fruit and veggie vendors are disgusted each time we do it. The station nurse and I look at each other in dismay, “They must think we are revolting!” We all laugh, but, yep, that’s what they’re thinking.

If a single woman talks with a single man regularly, she can expect a marriage proposal. The topic might get raised like, “So, would you be interested in marrying an African man?” Very normal.

If your friend is talking to their friend, and you don’t know the third party (you are the first party and your friend is the second) then you listen for the third party’s name. The next time you see this person, you will say hello and inquire of them by name asking how they are doing to show that you would like to be their friend. Introductions American-style are weird and awkward. I can tell you that explains A LOT about some of my recent interactions. I am an ignoramus. Not only did I introduce Will to my veggie vendor this morning, I also smelled the broccoli! Other faces in the room show I am not the only one committing faux pas left and right.

If you have met someone and they think you are nice, they will show up at your house to be with you. If you are busy, you need to stop what you are doing and talk to them. They will stay. For a long time. When it is mealtime, you will say that you are preparing a meal, and you will invite them to join you. Mr. Hama’s wife is Hausa. Even to her, the idea that five friends show up from your home village throughout the day to your home in the city, expecting overnight lodging and food, feels a bit overwhelming. However, if a wife does not have enough food, then she brings shame on her husband. Some husbands hit their wives for humiliating them in this way. This is a sad truth that Mr. Hama frankly shares with us.

If someone has unexpectedly arrived for a visit, what happens if you have an appointment? If you care about the person or care about being their friend, you will call your appointment and reschedule. You will explain that something has come up. If you don’t do this, and you politely tell your friend that you have somewhere you have to be, then you are not their friend. You don’t care about them, you care about your schedule. You have just ended your friendship. Ouch.

Fat is beautiful. A skinny wife is an embarrassment to her husband. Now, I see many women in Niamey who are not fat. But, there are only a few large cities in Niger, and the city folk follow a different set of rules than the majority of the country. When it is harvest time there will be a contest. The women will eat to see who can gain the most weight. Whoever gains the most weight is queen for a year. The one who gains the least is mocked and made fun of. She should try harder next year. And, if a girl has reached 15 years old and is still not married (!), her parents will hide her for three or four months and feed her a lot of food. After that, they will have a beautiful outfit made for her. She will then walk to the market in her beautiful outfit showing how much weight she has gained. All of the village will talk about how beautiful she has become – and then she will receive many marriage proposals and be married shortly thereafter.

What?! That statement causes me to flashback to the image of the couturiere exchanging looks with her worker as she measured me and called out the numbers to the girl writing them down. My biceps are nothing to write home about. She’s probably second guessing my choice of husbands.

When Mr. Hama took his bride, 20 years ago, to meet his parents – his family was shocked and told him he should be ashamed for not feeding his wife. The village “spokesperson” (the one person who is allowed to speak without recrimination what everyone is thinking but doesn’t dare say out loud) declares that Hama does not have a wife, he has brought a skeleton with him to visit! The day before their departure, his mother took him aside and told him that he could leave but his wife would stay with his mother so that she could be fed and gain weight. She would be made beautiful for him! He insisted that he loved his wife just how she looked and that he would not leave the village without her.

Our evening was thought-provoking. Considering money – when Americans think “missionary” they think of someone who has chosen a path that will never make them rich. When Africans think “missionary” they think of a rich person. Both of them are correct – it all depends on your perspective. Considering respect for each other – Americans think that missionaries spend a lot of time on relationships and talking. Africans find missionaries abrupt and too busy. Both are correct – it all depends on your perspective. Lastly, what Ken and I must keep foremost in our minds – when it comes to our ability to share the gospel here – to speak love and hope into someone’s life – Americans and Africans agree:  when someone knows you love them, and they like what following Christ looks like – they want to listen and figure out if it is true. With humility and hope, our prayers become more earnest that God will use us here despite our shortcomings and blunders.

May God bless your week.We miss you, we love you, we pray for you.


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