24 November 2011

When the Cultural Tables Turn

Yesterday one of my burn patients asked if she could leave for a day or two and then come back.  I thought it an odd request, but today her baby turns seven days old.

According to the local customs, turning seven days old entitles one to a name and a big party, the biki.  I've been to a few, and yes, they are quite a big deal.  Excessive quantities of pounded millet and sauce are prepared for the early morning meal . . . everyone you know, and maybe some you don't, comes to celebrate the birth and the giving of the name . . . everyone gives a gift to the mother and she in turn offers a little goodie bag . . . and then a sheep is slaughtered, bled, and skinned.  

Yeah, it's a pretty big deal.

A big enough deal that a woman with third degree burns covering three quarters of her leg wants to leave the hospital and come back tomorrow.  

As an Occupational Therapist I was intrigued by this request.  Being a holistic profession, in our practice we take into consideration all the aspects of a person's life and how their current state of injury, illness or disability effects, hinders, and impairs her ability to participate in the life she wants to be living.  We ask the question 'what is important to my patient' and we use her definition of 'purposeful and meaningful' to drive our treatment planning.

To my patient, this biki was more important than her own health and I wanted to know why.

I turned to two of my Nigerien colleagues and asked a whole series of questions like:

Q: Why does it have to be today?  A: Because it's seven days after the birth.
Q: But why?  A: Just because.
Q: Why does the mother have to be present when she spends the whole time inside the house and not actually enjoying the festivities?  A: To accept gifts and hand out party favors.
Q: Why the granny can't go in her place?  A: Because it has to be the mom.
Q: Why can't the family just accept the gifts for her?  A: (I never got an answer, just two shocked expressions)
Q: What happens if the baby doesn't have a biki?  Will he live his whole life being called Jariri (Baby Boy)?  A: What kind of a question is that?
Q: I still don't understand, why can't the family just accept all the gifts and explain that the mother is in the hospital and can't make it?  A: .......
My last question was met with a question, and suddenly the cultural tables turned.  Without realizing it, I went from student to teacher, novice to expert. 

'Well, then, in your country who slaughters the sheep?' my friend asked.  I blinked at him, 'I'm sorry, the what?'  'The sheep.  Who slaughters the sheep?' he replied as he drew his thumb across his throat.

I smiled.  'We don't do that.'

'WHAT?!?!  You don't kill a sheep at your bikis?!?!?!'

'We don't have bikis.'  

'WHAT?!?!  NO WAY!!!  Then when does the baby get a name??'

'Usually the parents decide together on a name before the baby is born.'


And considering how many still-births there are here and how many children do not survive their first weeks, giving a baby a name before he has even taken a breath is ludicrous. 

'So if you don't have bikis when do people give gifts?'

'We do that before the baby is born too.' 

My friends were dumb-founded and confirmed with one another in Hausa that they were, indeed, understanding me correctly.

'So then you take the baby and present him at the church?'

'Yes, but not for several months.'

'WHAT?!?!?!  So when does the family come to visit??'

I explained that in my culture when a woman gives birth, the last thing she wants is a whole of company hanging around the house.  And that it's really only the family that lives close by, except for the parents and maybe the closest siblings who come right away.  But for the most part, we keep our distance to allow new-mamma to get some rest.

The pair were completely blown away by this bazaar culture I come from.  So I thought I'd really lay it on thick and informed them that in my part of the world, when a person is sick they prefer not to have visitors.  

That was the last straw . . . sick people who want to be left alone?!?!?!  Without the whole village coming and sitting on your floor, saying nothing, just staring at you?!?!?! 

My colleagues had heard enough.  They didn't want another word about this foreign land where babies are named too soon and a man with the flu suffers isolated from all those that love him.


Linda Thomas said...

You've written another excellent post. So rich with information, and with your grace!

I remember similar situations--they produce both laughter and tears sometimes.


Chcpe said...

WOW, What a crazy culture we live in here in the States. The child must live for seven days in Niger before they are named...and we just take that for granted (the living for 7 days). We should never take life for granted...I think their culture has that one figured out. There is such excitement in having the biki, both for the mother...and the village...they celebrate life together; we try to limit the village here.

Meganjane00 said...

I love this picture!! Thanks!

Deb. said...

Thanks Linda! Your comments are always so encouraging!

Deb. said...

Yeah, I have learned a lot about perspective and other ways of seeing things since I've lived overseas . . . particularly related to community, the value of life, and what I have always taken for granted without even being conscious of it!

Deb. said...