As I prepared for my return to Niger, I made the assumption that last term, I had learned a thing or two about the culture. I felt confident that this time, I'd make fewer mistakes.
Then I landed.
And it's felt like I've done everything wrong since!
Maybe, like me, my Nigerien friends had made the same assumption, and therefore have raised the bar in terms of cultural-appropriateness.
I guess it's safe to say I've kissed my Get-Out-of-Culture-Free Card goodbye . . . it's time I should know better!
So with the steady flow of cross-cultural blunders over the past few weeks, I've found myself back in the seat of a hard-core 'cultural learner'. It's my inner anthropologist's dream come true . . . and my outer realist's nightmare.
This evening as I returned home from the hospital, a familiar voice called to me from outside my window. Old R. was standing on the patio with a big metal tub on her head.
I came out to see what she was selling . . . fried dunkali (it's like a white sweet potato). And while they are a nice treat from time to time, I'm holding out for the onion ring lady. I thanked her for the offer, but declined.
And then she did the strangest thing.
She lifted the tub from her head, set it on the ground, and sat down on the steps next to it.
Confused as to what was about happen, I was certain from how comfy she had made herself that we were going to be out there for awhile.
We made small talk about the impending doom of hot season . . . and then she dropped the bomb.
'I have pain in my head.'
'Oh, I'm sorry.'
'Like, right now.'
I stood there for a minute wondering, still, why she had popped a squat . . . and then why were we talking about the heat and then suddenly about her headache!
And then it hit me! She wants me to do something about it. She knows I've got something inside my house that will make her feel better . . . she may not know it's called Tylenol or Advil, but she knows I have the means of easing her pain. And while we aren't close friends, from time to time she knocks on my door offering to sell me onions or tomatoes . . . saving me the hassle of wandering into town to hunt down the veggies and schlep them home myself.
Knowing that this is a 'high context', incredibly relational culture, I knew there was only one right way to handle this.
'Do you want some medicine?'
'Yes,' she answered (though I'm fairly certain 'Why do you think I brought it up??' got lost in translation!).
I went inside and poured two ibuprofen from the bottle that lives in my medicine cabinet. I returned to her, still perched on the steps, handed over the little pills and cup of water, and sat down beside her.
She washed them down with one big swig, thanked me, and leaned back on the steps as we started to discuss the birds that were nesting in the branches in the tree across the way.
Well, at least she was chatting about birds . . . I was analyzing how she did it. She had asked a favor without actually asking. She didn't even state that she wanted meds . . . only that there was pain in her head . . . as if she was just telling me about her day.
So I wondered if it would go both ways. I speculated if I could bring up a seemingly random item and she would do what is in her power to help me out.
And then I gave it a try.
'So, you know the little round things from the trees that have green water inside?' (I don't know the Hausa word for 'lime')
'Like a tomato?' Old R. asked
'No, tomatoes have red water inside. I want the one with green water. Not yellow water, but green, like your shawl. The ones that make your mouth go like this [as I mimicked a 'sour' expression]'
'Yeah, I know them.'
'So, is this the season for the little round things from the trees that have green water inside?'
'Yeah, this is the season for those.'
'So, they can be found at the market?'
'Yeah, or in town on another day.'
'Because I think I might go to the market on Wednesday and maybe I'll get some.'
'Yeah, they are there.'
My hope is, tomorrow she will show up with a bowlful. Not because I don't want to go to the market, in fact, I have to go give out photos that I took before I left . . . but because my inner anthropologist really wants to learn the Hausa art of asking a favor.