This morning I came across an article on the BBC telling the story of a well-educated, well-off, older single lady who is a staunch advocate for freedom of speech and woman's rights in Bamako . . . the capital city of our western neighbor. The conflict in that country has been ever present in our news and we do feel its affects across our borders.
I love the article because it so clearly communicates a western perspective on an African's situation. Let me explain.
This week has been uniquely characterized for me . . . usually I'm the one asking the questions of culture: So what's the deal with 'the suitcases' when you want to get engaged? How long does a trip need to be for me to feel obligated to bring back a gift for my closest 40-some friends? If 'ammatta' is the word for an unmarried young woman, what's the word for an unmarried man . . . and when am I allowed to call someone that?
But this week, my African friends came to me: Déborah, why do westerners do this . . . and what does it mean when they do that . . . and why don't you all understand this . . . and how come you all won't stop doing that??
On one hand I was encouraged to feel that the underlying desire to understand each other better was mutual . . . that for as much as I wanted to learn about how and why and when and how often my Nigerien friends do what they do and think how they think, they wanted to learn the same about me . . . and finally felt safe enough to ask.
But on the other hand, it really made me stop and think about the way we understand one another. About the conclusions we, mutually, draw as to why our cultures just can't seem to figure each other out.
In the article, the author describes his neighbor's situation: relatives from the north evacuate their city because of the fighting and they move into her home, as ordered by her two brothers living abroad. The author details what he himself has seen over the compound wall: the rural relatives have brought with them their way of life, and use her manicured garden as a kitchen and compost pit.
The only quotes from the neighbor are diplomatic in her expression of the differences between the way of life in the urban south with that of the rural north. Other than that, she gives no more direct insight into her own opinion on the matter. We gather more from the author, but from what I've learned from my own West African friends, the true feelings are found between the lines.
It is clear that what upsets her the most is that this temporary displacement would have afforded a young cousin the opportunity to be educated, even if only long enough to learn to read . . . but we find that for the relatives, this unwanted relocation has interrupted this young girl's wedding plans. It is the clash between the educated-urbanized-progressives and the uneducated-rural-traditionalists. Her cause has shown up on her front door, but since it is family, she shows respect for their way of life and beliefs and so she doesn't push her platform.
Even living here in Niger, I found myself incredibly disconnected from both the neighbor's and her relatives' reactions . . . I meet kiddos and adults EVERY DAY who are illiterate and I live in the country that has the highest rate of child brides in the world! But as I read this article, those weren't the points that stuck out in my mind. They weren't the oppositions that raced first into my mind.
I kept going back to everything left 'between the lines' . . . like the invasion of space and the inconvenience of having uninvited residents. As I read, I heard the author's struggle with the same concepts: THESE PEOPLE HAVE INVADED HER PRIVACY! But if we look at her own words, that's not what she's saying . . . in her context, the obligation to host distant relatives is understood, and unquestioned, and therefore not resented.
When the author described the religious family of 8 moving in next door with his secularized single neighbor, a conversation I had with a Nigerien friend on the subject of hospitality echoed through my ears. He had come to me and asked why his western friends, who know he is trying to send his daughter to North America, keep dodging his requests for help.
I explained to him that it requires no thought for a West African to take someone, even a stranger, into his/her home for an undetermined period of time . . . but for a North American or a European it is a more complicated decision. I shared that we consider space and resources in a very different way that our African friends do . . . and the more I spoke, the wider his eyes bugged out of his head.
I described that for a West African, the grandchildren of the cousins of his grandparents were still considered 'close family' . . . but for us, that would be too distant to even call 'extended family.' His jaw hit the floor.
I told him that for a West African, if a person was invited into his home, he would be welcoming him/her to act as if he/she was in his/her own home (as the relatives in the article did, as seen through the relocation of the kitchen) and he, as the homeowner, would be obligated to allow them to do so. I explained that in my culture when we stay in someone else's home (with immediate family and closest friends being the exception, for some) we respect their privacy . . . we do not open cabinet doors nor rearrange things, we know that there are certain spaces that are 'off limits' to visitors and we do not invite ourselves into those places.
When I had finished, he wanted more. His curiosity had been peeked. An hour later we had discussed my culture's viewpoint on marriage, borrowing money, 'God's will' vs personal control, and time. It was fascinating!
So here's to another day of intercultural living! To misunderstanding and misperceptions . . . and hopefully, the curiosity and ability to meet somewhere near the middle!