24 February 2013

How to Cover a Multitude of [Cultural] Sins

Over the past two weeks I've been given a[nother] new Hausa nickname: Mai Wayo: The Owner of Cleverness.

This is a society that appreciates witty responses and apparently these past few weeks I've proven that I can hold my own when it comes to offering come-backs that meet the Hausa cultural standard.  Between the Nigerien nursing staff, several crutch-training patients and a couple of vendors around town, I'm no longer just The Owner of the Giving of Walking.

But before you jump to the wrong conclusion and think that I'm well on my way to rubbing shoulders in this society, the reality is, when it comes to culture, every step forward comes with (at least) two steps back!

When I first returned to Galmi, my kitchen had been gutted and was being renovated.  A carpenter from the US was out for a few weeks and my house was next on the list for a facelift.

Working alongside two of the hospital's carpenters, he taught them how to make the most beautiful cabinetry Niger has ever seen.  They did a phenomenal job and I was (and still am) extremely grateful.

About a week after all the woodwork had been finished, the old carpenter hunted me down and in very aggressive Hausa demanded a gift.  I didn't understand everything he said, but he used the French word cadeau ('gift') so there was no question what he was after.  I reminded him that his salary is paid by the hospital . . . but he kept up his demand.

Not sure what to do about it, I went home and sent an email asking for help from someone older and wiser.

Last term, before I went back to the States for the six months, the carpenters had rescreened the my back porch and all the windows in my house (mosquito control is considered a top priority around these parts).  And while Tsoho the Carpenter hadn't actually been a part of that job, he came to me and informed me that in Niger 'Merci doesn't fit in the pocket.'  He was telling me that if I was happy with the job done, I should give some sort of gift on top of the payment they would receive for their work.

Money and gift giving are tricky subjects here in Niger . . . the intricacies of which I'm certain I will never understand.

So, back to Tsoho the Carpenter and his demand of a gift for my cabinets . . . I was still waiting for an answer to my email when the Old Carpenter came again to find me.  He was still angry . . . and from the way he was speaking, it seemed as if I had not only offended, but greatly insulted him.

As he hounded me with aggressive Hausa I didn't understand.  And then I heard 'So where's my pen?'

Huh??  I thought.  'Tsoho the Carpenter, did you leave your pen in my house?'

'No!!  You need to give me my pen!'

'Tsoho the Carpenter, what pen???'

'My gift!'

'What gift???'

'The gift for making you beautiful cabinets!!'

'But Tsoho the Carpenter, the hospital pays your salary' (I didn't have enough Hausa to explain that I pay a fee every month that goes into the housing repair fund and that my house happened to be the next on the list, and so the repair fund pays the hospital for parts and labor and the hospital pays him).

'But doesn't the hospital also pay the salaries of So-and-So, Whats-His-Face, and That-Other-Guy?'


'Then why did you give them a gift and not me?'

'Tsoho the Carpenter, I don't know what you're talking about!!'


It took me a few seconds to follow . . . and that's when it hit me!

The three guys he named had come a few days after the kitchen was finished to hang some curtain rods in my living room and bedroom.  They had needed a pen to mark the wall as to where they would drill.  I was still in the process of unpacking, so, from one of my boxes I pulled out a quart-sized ziploc busting with pens to give them what they needed to finish the job.

They all commented on how one person could possibly need so many pens, and without thinking about it, I let them each go home with two.

In this High-Context society, Tsoho the Carpenter interpreted the action, which had been completely free of thought on my part, as a personal insult to him.  I had not only shown favoritism, but I had elevated the quality of a minimal task beyond that of his great endeavor.  For him, I had rewarded three men for doing me a favor which required no skill and had therefore offended the expertise of his craft.

Realizing the depth of this cultural misunderstanding, I apologized to Tsoho the Carpenter and explained that the pens weren't actually a gift and I would be happy to bring him two.  And, just to be safe, every maintenance guy who stepped foot in my house in those two weeks also got pens.

But in the process, I have come to learn how language isn't just words . . . when it comes to culture, behavioral reaction is just as important as verbal.  It is sufficient that I say 'thank you' when the workshop builds me treatment tables and racks for my theraballs and parallel bars and removes unwanted furniture that was stashed in my gym and hangs bars where we can store crutches . . . but my words go so much further if I could show my gratitude.

So on Friday, at the end of the workday, I invited all 46 shop workers into my gym for cake and punch.    I told them that when I arrived in 2011, the Therapy Department was an empty room, but thanks to their hard work and efforts we now had a functioning gym where countless Nigeriens would benefit from physical rehabilitation.

I must have done something right, because just before they all left, one guy made an announcement in Hausa, causing the others to laugh and cheer in agreement . . . he had said they would now all be praying that God would hurry up and give me a husband!

Which I'm pretty sure translate into American-Culturese as: 'that was the best cake I've ever eaten!'

1 comment:

Beth said...

Oh my, Deb! I love the way God helps you to understand these things that are going on under the surface and once the lesson is learned, gives you ideas to communicate appreciation in a way that gets through to them. Throwing a party for those carpenters in the gym = a great idea!