There are many social rules between men and women in Niger. Things like a woman walks behind her husband, not with him. And a woman refers to her husband as maigida ('owner of the house') never by name.
Being an outsider in that early-learning phase, I feel as though I am constantly breaking rules I don't even know. It is hard to be a professional woman in a context where most women cannot read and to be unmarried by 20 is rare.
Yet being an outsider also means that I fall into a classification all of my own. There are liberties taken that would never be considered appropriate with a Nigerien woman . . . and because of the context in which I come from, some times, I don't even realize that what is being done or said is anticultural.
But sometimes, being an outsider offers a get-out-of-cultural-mishaps-free (or mostly-free) card. Like today, for example.
A. has been in the hospital since I arrived. It's been a long road, and he has further to go still. It's been a week since he's been well enough or willing to walk and he's just getting weaker as the days go by. Today I finally had enough and refused to leave his room until he at least tried.
Reluctantly he agreed.
You may remember that the last time he 'walked' with crutches, it took three and a half people to get him down the hallway and back. The same men fell in line to help him today. I stood out front to coach . . . or rather to pantomime (mugodi Ubangiji for the language barrier!). But unlike last time, once they got him up standing, they all let go . . . at the same time. He made it three hops from the bed and stood right in front of me.
'Akjas oiw viag toiavlja,' he said.
'Oh no! You've got to make it back to your bed!'
'Jgiwvi oiv3wv laviwbo,' he answered.
'Uh-uh, you will not fall here! Not on my watch!'
'JGIWVI OIV3WV LAVIWBO!' he repeated.
'No!! YOU NEED TO GET BACK TO THE BED. DO NOT QUIT ON ME NOW! A quick turn, then three hops back! That's it. You can do it.'
Then the unimaginable happened. He leaned forward, looking exhausted and defeated, and rested his forehead on his my shoulder.
I stood there unsure of what to do. No one in the room said a word. They just stared at me as if I had just crossed the cultural boundary . . . the stares then turned to those of curiosity for what I was going to do next. And frankly, I had no idea!
Those seconds felt like cross-cultural hours.
So, I did what any OT would do . . . ballroom dancing!
Okay, not quite, but it's probably the closest I'm going to get in Niger.
I put one hand on his waist to guide his lower body and another to the side of his rib cage to guide his upper body. He looked up at me, helpless. 'Okay, this is what we're going to do . . . you can do this . . . we are going to turn and walk back to your bed . . . and then you're going to sit up for an hour.'
My hands went from him to his crutches and back again with each step. And as his village looked on, A. and I 'waltzed' our way back to his hospital bed.
When it came time to sit, he pulled a flop and ended up on the edge of the bed. No way he was going to make it like that for another hour. But being too weak (and probably irritated with me) he couldn't (or wouldn't) scoot back on the bed . . . or maybe I'm just really lousy at charades and have been living in denial these past seven weeks.
Since my gestures and body language were failing I decided to just say it all in French and move in for the kill. Besides, at that point everybody was already (culture)shocked . . . could I really make it any worse?!?
I stood in front of him, my knee to his (gotta love doing therapy in a wrap-around skirt!), positioned my hands, and told him on the count of trois he was to stand just a little, lean forward, then sit back as far as possible.
And somehow it worked.
Maybe now he'll be willing to give the walker another go.