21 April 2013

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

Since moving to Niger two years ago, I have spent the majority of my time feeling out of place.  Whether it be my mother-tongue, my nationality, the color of my skin, my age, my gender, my status as an unmarried and childless woman . . . you name it, there has been a time when I'm the only one in the room falling into a certain demographic.

But yesterday, my role as The Odd (wo)Man Out reached a whole new level!

At the end of June, my dear friend E. will be marrying B., my assistant.  Since she and I were friends long before they got together . . . and even longer than he's been my trusty sidekick, it was assumed that I'd be 'wearing her uniform' on their wedding day.  We had talked about it ages ago, and last weekend I got the official text message inviting me to be one of her bridesmaids.

On Monday morning I verbalized my excitement to E. as I accepted the position; on Monday afternoon B. handed me a little piece of paper which formally invited me to the 'first meeting of the marriage of Monsieur B.M.' to be held at 4pm on Saturday at the home of the pastor.

'What's this?' I asked.

'It's the meeting where we will discuss the important things about the wedding, like our outfits and stuff.'

'Oh.' I said as I wondered in my head why this invite had only his name on it and not E.'s as well.  But instead of asking for clarification, I figured it was one more of those cultural nuances that I just didn't understand, and decided I'd show up on Saturday as instructed.

Being that this was a get-together of mostly African's, I didn't even leave my house until ten after four to start walking into town.  I arrived at the pastor's house, and no one was there except his wife.

'Oh, am I the first one here?' I asked, fully expecting to be half an hour earlier than everyone else, even though I was nearly half an hour late from the 'official' start time.

'For what?' she asked.

'Uh . . . ' I hesitated wondering if I had misunderstood something.  'B. told me I should come here for the meeting about the wedding.'

'OH!  No, it's not here.  E. is up a So-And-So's house.  Do you know where that is?'

'Who is So-And-So?'  That was my cue to give B. a ring and find out what was going on.

As we were chatting on the phone, the pastor's wife produced a boy who would walk me to the house.  'Never mind!' I said to B., 'Someone is going to take me to the house!'

The boy and I turned left out of the church property and then another left and the first right and began wandering through dusty side streets.  Then the boy stopped and turned around . . . so I stopped and turned too.  B. was waiting back at the road behind us.

'He's taking you to the wrong house!'  B. yelled.

The boy shrugged and started walking back toward B.

I didn't understand.

'He's taking you where the girls are meeting.  But we're meeting over here.'

That should have been my cue to say 'But I'm a girl, shouldn't I be with E. and the other bridesmaids?'  But I was really curious at this point wanted to see what was going to happen next.

When we got to the house where the meeting would be, four guys that I know from the hospital were sitting in lawn chairs in the courtyard of the house.  These four had been warned about my arrival, and so they weren't shocked when I entered, but I could tell they were just as curious as I was.

One stood to give me his chair, but warned that I had to sit ever so carefully because the chair was broken.  We made a few jokes about the brokenness of the chair and that seemed to thin the ice a little bit.  I sat down and nearly rolled out of my seat . . . it was at that point that I began to wonder if I had actually been invited to play the role of court jester.

After about twenty awkward minutes another handful of guys showed up.

They weren't expecting me.

They hesitantly greeted me and I chuckled to myself, as these are all guys I see everyday in the hospital, where we chat and joke and laugh.  But here, out in the village, the rules are different.  Most of these guys don't socialize with women outside of work and church and family.

And now here sits the ultimate outsider: white chick has been invited to the boys club!

At this point, someone arrived with 15 plastic chairs.  Our short metal ones were removed, and we all relocated.  I was invited to sit first . . . which I later realized had been a strategic move on their part.  The guys followed suit, being sure to leave at least one empty on either side of me: there was clearly a boys-side and a girls-side.  I wanted to ask if I should be expecting any other members of the fairer-sex, but I already knew the answer.

Still waiting for a few more guys, we went ahead got started.

The first order of business was to elect our officials.  President, well, that was easy . . . it's B.'s wedding, so he gets to be the commander-in-chief.

Next was secretary.

Before realizing what was happening, I was nominated, it was seconded and the motion was passed!

I had been Class Secretary when I was a senior in high school back in 1999 . . . surely I could remember back that far!  But those meetings had been in ENGLISH and, at that time, I was very preoccupied with making myself well rounded for university applications.  These meetings, however, would be in HAUSA and I'm not sure I can put 'Nigerien Wedding Planning Secretary' on my Curriculum Vitae!

Finally I spoke up, 'Uh . . . I think I'm the only one here who has no idea what is going on . . . so unless the rest of you have illegible handwriting, maybe you should pick someone else.'

The ensuing Hausa conversation translated a little something like this:
Guy 1: But she's the girl! 
Guy 2: But she doesn't speak Hausa! 
Guy 3: But she's the girl! 
Guy 2: But she doesn't speak Hausa! 
Guy 4: But she's the GIRL! 
Guy 2: But she doesn't speak HAUSA! 
In the end, the boy that works in the hospital's admin office was granted the role of secretary.

The good news is, they skipped my nomination for treasurer.  I guess B. had already informed them that I don't do math.

Once the official positions had been decided, three more guys showed up, and were all very confused by my presence.  After their series of greetings, they scanned the circle for empty chairs.  One quickly sat down in the lone remaining seat on the boys-side.  The other two stared at the vacancies to my right and my left.  In unison, they lunged for the few remaining chairs stacked off to the side.

I guess my next Hausa lesson will start with learning how to say 'Have a seat, I don't bite!'

Finally catching on to what had happened, B. looked at me.  He looked at the empty chairs.  He looked at his guy-friends.  He looked back at me.

Without a word, he stood and came and sat down in the chair on my right.

Because of the nature of our work, B. and I are often pushing the limits of cultural frontiers: physical rehabilitation requires physical contact that is often outside of the cultural norm . . . we also spend a lot of time together, more than is typical for a single guy and a single girl who are not of the same family . . . we've had some very honest and direct conversations about cross-cultural differences, his thoughts on how we Westerners do things, and my confusion regarding Nigerien mentalities . . . we've worked hard to find a middle ground between his traditional African 'power-distance' and my laid-back approach to our working relationship.

But when he desegregated our group by coming to sit next me, I realized that B. was announcing to his closest people that despite our cultural, national and gender differences, we were equals and I was welcomed as a part of his inner circle.

Next on the agenda was the uniform.

B. had picked that his groomsmen would wear royal blue suits with sky colored ties.  Everyone was in agreement.  But then the discussion went in circles again: what would Déborah wear?

Since I kept hearing my name, I finally leaned over to B. and asked, 'What are they saying about me?'  He chuckled and turned to the pastor.  In English, the pastor said 'Déborah, we have decided that we want you to wear what we men are wearing!'

I couldn't believe what I was hearing.  'You mean, you want me to wear a suit, with PANTS?!?!'  Now, at Christian weddings in Niger, it has become common for the maid-of-honor and the bridesmaids to wear suit jackets with mid-shin length skirts . . . but as far as I know, this was a first!

'Yes,' the pastor said, 'Most of us feel that since you will be walking with us, you should be dressed like us.'

Still unsure of how I went from being a bridesmaid to a groomsman without my conscious consent, I decided to go the route of humor.  'Well, either I'm going to have to change halfway through the ceremony, or I'll wear a pant-leg on the left side and a skirt on the right.'

I didn't think I was actually that funny, but it worked and they announced, 'Alright, alright!!  You can wear a skirt!'

For another half an hour they discussed things like money and transportation to and from the city where the wedding will be . . . all the while I kept thinking 'How am I going to explain this to the bride??'

When it was all over, an other meeting was organized for next month.  But those who were late were informed that all future meetings would happen on 'Hospital Time' not 'BMT-Black Man Time'.  At this point, I finally laughed out loud.  Apparently BMT is a legit acronym that has made its way north from Nigeria!

As I said my goodbyes and went to leave, B. called me back--E. was on her way and wanted to chat with me.

Turns out, the two of them couldn't agree as to which 'side' I should be on . . . so rather than chopping me in two, they compromised: At the church, I'll be with the groom, at the reception, with the bride.  So apparently I'll get two outfits and will change in the middle.

I'm still not sure how I feel about the whole thing . . . but I guess it sort of makes it official . . . as a single-educated-childless-western woman, I don't really fit with norm!

So, in the spirit of still having no idea what the heck is going, all together now: ONE OF THESE THINGS IS NOT LIKE THE OTHERS!!


Linda Watt said...

I have been in the same situation and was clueless--one time I was the matron of honor for the bride, but there was no meetings before hand! Not even a uniform!That was very interesting to say the least! I just did what I was told to do! I have also attended weddings where we were the only white person and we got the royal but separated from everyone else treatment! These are all what makes Africa such a wonderful place and you are getting to experience it up close. Not many do! It is an honor to be where you are and to be close enough. How sweet that the couple came up with a way to include you in all aspects of the ceremony!

Flipping the Bird in Fada said...

Oh Deb, I can so see this whole scenario! Awkard !!!!!
.... but hey it means you do have a place and have knitted some great relationships that you were wanted on both sides. It's one thing for people to say that they want you, the white person at the wedding but they actually do want you to be a part of it. Enjoy it.

sherylobrien said...

Deb, Deb, Deb! I agree with your other friends. You have been doubly honored. Go with the flow, and make lots of memories. I love your blog, and love your heart for the wonderful and often confusing life ways of West Africa!

Leah Long said...

Oh my goodness, this is absolutely hilarious, in a "I really feel for you, but I'm sort of jealous" way. HOW awkward, but you handled it with grace. I have yet to have any real role in any M. ceremonies, but it's a rather daunting thought. Something you want to add to your experiences, the same way you want to add a dentist appointment to the schedule. So neat that you're part of these friends' lives. I can't believe you're on "both sides!"

Elizabeth said...

Once again....I laugh with you!