If you ever sign up for missions in West Africa with SIM, they will give you A LOT of books to read. These books give solid advice about cultural missteps, money matters, and compliments. My life this last year has proved these books true. Yesterday, I got the chance to test them again.
About two weeks ago, I set a date with some new friends. We were going to have lunch at my house. These three women do not have any Western friends, and they are some of my first Nigerienne friends. I think they were as nervous as I, but we were going to test the waters together.
I spent some time with experienced missionaries and my French teacher, trusting they would steer me in the right direction. I invited my French teacher, a Nigerienne Christian, to come to our lunch, but she wisely suggested that if I brought her along it would inhibit my new friends. I did invite one of my American neighbors to join us because she has been in Niger for a long time, and I am more confident of her French-speaking abilities.
In our planning, we considered a few ideas for lunch. Most people here don’t use utensils, but Westerners do. So, we tried to think of a meal that didn’t require utensils. How about hamburgers and fries? Too weird, what was our deal with all these condiments? Ok, mashed potatoes and beef in gravy? Uh, no. Way too messy for us Westerners if we aren’t using utensils. I thought of it because it is very much like the typical dish mashed yam with a type of sauce, but I must confess I wasn’t brave enough for that yet. Ok, brochettes and fries – which is very much like shish kabobs. If we serve that with baguette and cut up mango (which is a bit contrived because no one here would cut up a mango), then we have our meal. I decide to serve it with cold cokes and Fanta because those are a special treat here.
My neighbor and I get everything ready and we wait. I know, since I read the books SIM told me to, that my friends will show up any time after 12 noon. We said we would meet at eleven. This translates into, “We have decided upon a time when we will get ready to leave to come to your house. Getting ready to leave may mean we need to bathe the children, change our clothes, walk to the road, find a taxi going in the general direction of your home, etc.” So, I prepared myself for an arrival any time between noon and one. Also, I have some prior experience with these friends. We’ve gotten together a few times in town, and we have generally found each other about an hour after the time we said.
At eleven, I walked out to the guards to tell them we were expecting guests and to please welcome them and walk them to our house. So, noon came and went. One o’clock came and went. I decided to call my friend. I called, but there was no answer. My neighbor and I decided something must have come up. It’s quite possible; if someone drops by for a visit, you are supposed to not mention you have other plans. You are supposed to visit with them, feed them if it is mealtime, and enjoy your time together. If you have previous plans, you’ll just have to reschedule and explain later. Very normal.
So, we eat our lunch, my neighbor and I. We part, and I get ready for an end-of-year Art Exposition at our high school. It is 2:00. Then, you know what happens. My phone rings. My guests are outside the gate, down the road at another mission property, and wondering if they are at the right place? Oh! By the time my friend explains where she is and I am ready to explain that I am just at the next gate down the road, we lose our connection. This is a sign she has used all of her phone credit. I try to call back. My phone freezes up and can’t call out. Very normal. Very stressful.
I send out EMERGENCY text messages that are meant to sound confident and calm to Ken and my neighbor, “They’re here! 🙂 Come and say hi!” Ken is at the Art Expo, but he gets my text within the hour. My neighbor was showering before the Art Expo and didn’t see her phone until that evening (!).
I jump into my car and drive out of the compound, and down the road. My friends with their three small children (they only brought the youngest, not the pre-teens) are waiting patiently. We wave hello, and they climb into the car. Out of the three little ones, only one is afraid of me. He starts crying immediately. His mother rebukes him and assures him I am just fine. Don’t be afraid! He keeps crying. She can’t comfort him very well because she is holding a cardboard box. They tell me they have brought me a gift!
I drive us back and we get out of the car. We walk back to my patio area where I have a table and chairs. Another cultural difference is that people here share meals outside. It may be hot, you may have sweat dripping down your back and your temples, but outside is where the food is. When I first lived here and observed this, I was stymied. Why would you eat outside in the heat? Then, I imagined cooking and eating inside a hut or a cement-walled structure with no oven and no fan and no electricity. What a dork I was. The little one, Abdul, who is afraid of me, takes a look at me. He wasn’t too close to me after we got out of the car; but here we are, face to face. He runs and climbs into his mother’s lap, wailing. She has put the box down, and she holds him close, and he looks away from me.
I begin serving food. Thank God for food. Though I had already eaten, there was still plenty leftover. The fries were cold, but no one seemed to care. We ate brochettes, fries, mangos, baguette, and cold cokes and fantas. Then, for dessert I chose two things I thought were different but fun to try. I served cinnamon rolls and strawberry smoothies. The smoothies were such a novelty, we talked about them for a while. The best thing about them, aside from the frozen strawberries, is the crushed ice. The idea of a smoothie is strange to my friends. You have to have a lot of stuff I completely take for granted to have a smoothie – electricity, a blender, ice, strawberries, liquid milk, sugar. Mahasa asked me if I bought it at a store, and Jamila guessed that I made it myself. The little ones went crazy over it. Abdul stops crying and stares at me with curiosity. He has a complete smoothie mustache. Food has made us friends.
When I go inside to grab a few things, the kids hang out by the door. No one quite steps inside but they stare into the kitchen. When I go back out, Mahasa is around the corner at the outside faucet rinsing a dish. I ask Jamila if she thinks anyone would like to move inside. I am fine staying outside, sweat and all, but I don’t want anyone thinking I don’t want them to come inside. She says, no, they would both prefer to stay on the patio if that is ok.
Mahasa walks over to the cardboard box. She picks it up and asks me if I want to open my gift. As soon as I began to open the cardboard box, a flash of feathers caught my eye, and I thought, “Oh, please don’t let it be a chicken.” And, it wasn’t. It was two pigeons.
They are beautiful, and I say so. Jamila and Mahasa smile. Mahasa motions for Jamila to hand her one of the birds. She does so, and Mahasa, holding it firmly and spreading its wing, calmly begins to pluck out some of its feathers, explaining that I will need to do this in a few months if I don’t want them to fly away. She then does the same to the second one. The birds have a few tips of blood on their shoulders, but they don’t squawk or fight. She sets them free and they wander around the patio. I glance down at the feathers that lie on the patio. They are scattered between the tomatoes that were on the kabobs which the little ones threw on the ground as soon as they tasted them. I have the same internal reaction to these tomatoes, and I never eat them. The mixture of cooked red tomatoes and beautiful white feathers is a strange combination. I thank them for my gift. I did ask if they were pets or food. Is that a foolish question? They are pets.
And, then I remembered another thing I had read in my books. When in Africa, if one compliments a friend on something in their home, one is signaling that they want that something. I think back to when I last visited Jamila and Hamasa. I had looked at their pigeon wall and told them the birds were so pretty and calm! What was I thinking? I have no answer, except to say that I wasn’t. Then, I wondered if they had complimented me on something and I had simply said, “thank you,” not realizing the implications.
This led to me wondering how many faux pas they were having to forgive that I was blindly committing. However, I really needed to continue to carry on a conversation in French, so I decided not to start thinking in English. That was not going to help any of us.
Then, Ken showed up. I introduced him, and my friends were very pleased. That made me happy. I showed him our gift, which he immediately asked about preparing for dinner?! That guy is all in, he just jumps into whatever might be expected! I think at this point Mahasa probably believes this is something we eat in our country, or why would we keep asking? She’s probably thinking we’re going to eat them as soon as she walks out the door.
I can report that Mark finds them interesting and is taking care of them.
After we finish eating, I look at the time. The Art Expo is still going on. I invite my friends to go check it out. We walk into Hope Hall. The first thing I notice is that outside it is 105 degrees, inside it is 80. It feels like a meat locker. We walk around and examine all of the art. We are surrounded by Sahel students and their parents. One of the parents spots us and brings over refreshments that were prepared for the show. None of the kids missed a beat. They took their cookies and walked around staring at all of the pieces. Another missionary saw the kids and treated them with such kindness that their mothers just beamed. I was happy to be among friends who don’t see differences, but see opportunities to be welcoming.
When we left Hope Hall, the sun met us outside in all of its glory. Mahasa drew a quick breath. We had grown accustomed to the hall very quickly, and the heat was truly breath-taking. She made a comment about the coolness inside. We laughed and started walking back.
Our last big cultural difference made me laugh. We got back to the house, and Mahasa spoke in Zarma. Quick as a wink the kids whipped off their clothes. She washed them all in the outside spigot. Talk about common sense! They were going to leave soon, they were hot and sticky from eating and the heat, and the water (which comes from our well) was cooler than the air around us. One of my neighbors, the elementary principal, walked by and grinned. The kids got all their wiggles out and pulled on some clean clothes Mahasa had packed in her bag. They were ready for the hot taxi ride home.
I drove them as far as the outskirts of town and dropped them off. I watched as Jamila and Mahasa carefully navigated traffic and got the kids to a taxi pickup. We waved and they were off. As you can see, I still have a lot to learn. Their lives are difficult. Mahasa hasn’t seen her husband in a year – he’s in Nigeria looking for work to send money home to his family. Jamila continues to struggle to find ways to feed herself and her two children. We got to laugh and spend time together and, for a few hours, forget how hard it is to survive here. Please pray for God to bless these women and their families.