Biking: noble or embarrassing?

I purchased a bike to use in West Africa before I even arrived. I knew I would want one. When I lived in France, I had a bike and loved using it both as part of my daily commute and for longer weekend rides. Occasionally I overloaded the bike just a bit coming back from the grocery store, and I had to move quickly to save the bag with the eggs from falling. Only once, though, did I lose a glass bottle on the pavement. More enjoyable were the kilometers of paved biking trails or packed gravel paths along rivers, through parks and forests, passing mountains, farms, houseboats and wildlife. Biking was enjoyable, economical and environmentally friendly.

Once I got attached to biking in France, I wondered why I hadn’t started earlier. When I lived in the Pacific Northwest (just before France) there were many enthusiasts, but I wasn’t one of them. In the Seattle-Portland corridor, some love biking simply as a weekend sport, while others embrace it consciously as a “green” way to get to work. Riding a bicycle is generally seen as the activity of an environmentally conscious and physically fit person. People who ride their bikes to work are seen to be people who are doing something noble. It’s not (usually) because they can’t afford a car to take them to work; it’s because they’ve left their vehicle at home and have chosen to get on a bicycle for the good of their health, the environment, or both.

Biking in West Africa got off to a slow start for me. Repeated slow starts, in fact, caused by repeated flat tires. Every second or third time I took the bike out, I found one tire or the other was losing air because of some sharp, unseen object in the streets. The good news is, tire repairs were cheap. The bad news is, it was never more than a few rides until the next repair was needed. I realized quickly that if this bike was going to be used, I had to call in help from the outside. So I got a hold of some slime-filled, puncture-resistant inner tubes from the U.S., and my bike has been rolling for months since then.

With that practical problem resolved, I’ve been able to discover what’s culturally odd about riding a bike in Niger.

Some days in Niger, I  ride my bike to work in the morning. The heat isn’t as bad in the mornings, it’s a 10-minute ride from my house, and I get there a few minutes early to wash off and change into a clean shirt (the heat isn’t as bad in the morning, but it’s still hot). Perfect. Now my wife has the car to haul the two kids around wherever she needs to go, I’ve got a tad more exercise in my week, and while I inhale plenty of air pollution on the way, I’m not guilty of producing any on my commute.

But nobody looks at me admiringly here. Nobody applauds. Nobody comes up to chat about the sport of biking or doing something good for the planet. They mostly point. Sometimes they grin. And usually, at least once per commute, someone looks at me and bursts out laughing.

The stares are normal. Those come if I drive or walk down the street, too, because I’m white and most of my neighbors are not. I’m getting used to that. But bursting out laughing caught me by surprise. Why was it so funny that I was riding a bike? When I put on my running shorts and jog a couple miles, I can tell some people think it’s odd, but they don’t point and laugh. So I asked my African co-worker, “Why do people laugh when they see a white guy riding a bike?”

He laughed nervously and looked away.

“It’s okay,” I pressed, “I won’t be offended, I’m just curious.”

He replied, “It’s just that, we see a white person and we think, ‘oh, he’s well-off’ and so we think, ‘why isn’t he driving a car?’”

“Oh, I see. So bikes here are for people who can’t afford cars or motorcycles.”

I explained how some people from my hometown are proud of riding their bikes to work, even if they have a car. Now whenever I ride my bike to work, we have an exchange that goes like this:

“Ah, you’ve taken the most economic method of transport today!”

“Yes, and the most environmentally friendly!”

“And you get exercise, too!”

And then we laugh, because he understands where I’ve come from, and I now better understand where I live.

And somehow, when I know there’s someone laughing with me, the people who laugh at me when I ride past don’t bother me so much.

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Who’s got change?

“That’s 3000.” the shopkeeper in the market gave me the price in CFA (the West African regional currency).

“But I just need the base for the light,” I told him, “not the light bulb. I already have one of those at home.”

“Okay,” he said, “then it’s just 2700.”

I handed him a bill for 5,000, and he gave me 2,000 back, then fished around looking for the rest of the change. But he didn’t have 300 CFA. So he said, “You have 300 francs credit. What else do you need?”

I hesitated for a moment: 300 CFA equals about 50 cents in U.S. currency, so maybe I should just tell him to keep it. Then I remembered that I had actually wanted a small light fixture and bulb for the shadowy corner near our front door. He showed me the options, and I chose the two items. Then he calculated the new total: 3300. Uh-oh. Once again, there was no change. This time, I just told him to keep the change and went on my way.

In this case, it was not too surprising: it’s one young guy in a market stall, not a large, well-funded store. Of course he won’t always have exact change. But often in the market, the vendor can run next door to get change from his friend. This week, though, it seemed that nobody had change. Just two days before, at a grocery store in town frequented by expatriates, my bag of ground coffee was priced at 2250. But when I checked out, there was no change for the 2500 I gave him. The owner didn’t make any offer to round the price down; if I wanted the coffee, I needed to figure something out. So I bought a pack of gum with my coffee.

My losses in these two cases were reduced a couple of days later when I came up short of the amount needed for a kilo of bananas, but the produce guy gave me a kilo anyway. His friend’s nephew was with me, so he cut me some slack.

I’ve gone into my bank to ask for coins several times to help relieve the endless shortage of change. Sometimes they’ve had it, other times not. One day they advised me to go the the central branch of the bank in town to get change. When I was in the neighborhood for another errand, I found a spot in the crowded lot and went into the lobby. I pulled a ticket from the take-a-number machine, and checked which number was currently being served. There were only 87 people ahead of me, with 4 tellers serving them and not an empty chair in sight in the waiting room. Even being in the minority privileged enough to have a bank account doesn’t make it easy to resolve the change crisis.

It all makes me wonder who exactly does have change around here? The taxi drivers and the ladies who sell fried food by the side of the road are constantly being paid in coins. Are they hoarding it all in their piggy banks? (or whatever the halal equivalent of a piggy bank is?) Have all the better-off people in town neglected to clean out their couch cushions and car seats?

Until the mystery is solved, I’ll just keep watching for the right size purchases to break a 10,000 (the largest bill I ever deal with), and hold on to the small bills and coins until they’re absolutely necessary.

The good news is, loyalty does pay off in this situation. When I needed change to pay my guard the other night, I walked to a shop just down the street where I’ve been a regular customer. The owner asked a couple different people for change, before chasing down a friend passing in the street. He handed me the small bills accompanied with a favorite West African phrase: “On est ensemble” (We are together). His shop doesn’t take Visa, and there’s no card to scan for the customer rewards program. But loyalty is still good currency.

Pink is for Girls…and Presidents?

Pink is for girls, blue is for boys.

At least, that’s what the idea that was reinforced for me over and over while growing up in North America. And following this strict logic, some people told us while my wife was pregnant with our first child that they wouldn’t know what to buy for our baby if they didn’t know the gender: should it be a blue or pink outfit? (As if the choice of baby clothes is binary, and while shopping for baby clothes, all the other colors of the rainbow suddenly cease to exist.) Associating gender with these two colors is, for better or for worse, strongly ingrained in our minds.

But the significance of colors swiftly changes when you travel outside of western culture. On my first visit to West Africa, a long-time expat here observed that “Here, a man can wear a pink “boubou”* and carry a tea set, and it’s just normal.” So while I still hesitate to don purple or pink clothing items even in this context, none of my African friends here would think twice if I did. My 4-year old daughter is already well conditioned by American norms: one of her favorite activities is to put on three or four layers of pink clothing (it’s cool season right now, so she won’t pass out from heat exhaustion), and she tells me that blue is for boys. Meanwhile, I chuckle at the teenage boy walking down the street to school with a pink Disney-princess backpack.

This cultural difference is pretty insignificant in every day life, of course. But I found the use of pink striking when campaigning began for the elections later this month. One morning, we left the house to find that hundreds of colorful banners had appeared on the streets and on houses, each color representing a party and candidate. A long stretch of paved road nearby currently sports a pink flag on each light post. If I had seen this in the U.S., I would think that it was an awareness campaign for the fight against breast cancer. Here, as I looked closely to match the colors of flags and banners with the posters for candidates, I discovered that pink represented the current president in his campaign for re-election. Pink stands for the most powerful man in the country!

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I commented on this difference to some African friends: in one place, pink is for women’s health, in another it stands for the man who leads the nation. As we discussed the different connotations of colors in our different cultures, one of them said, “Red is the color we don’t like here. To us, it represents death.” That comment made me think twice about giving my wife a Valentine’s card with a giant red heart on it this weekend. But in the end, I shouldn’t worry: she’s American, so to her red is still the color of love.

 

* The traditional robe worn by West African men

Don’t Ask Unless You Don’t Mean It: Food Manners 101

“Do you want to eat ?”

The taxi driver held up the remaining 5 or six bites of his sandwich in his right hand as he gripped the steering wheel with his left.

“No, it’s okay,” I replied as I settled into the front seat. Just a moment later, the driver pulled over and two more passengers climbed in to the back seat. He repeated the question for them, now with just a couple bites remaining at the end of the baguette. “No, go ahead,” they responded in unison, and the driver finished off the remaining bites.

As I glanced sideways at the little morsel of sandwich in his hand, part of me thought,  “Really? Who would want to eat after him like that ? That’s kind of weird.” But then I thought back to an encounter in my neighborhood a couple of weeks earlier.

I had met a group of students on our street, and I spent the middle of the day with them. At one point, I went into my house to have lunch, telling them it was time to go eat lunch with my family. When I came back out, one of the students said to me,

“You know that was really rude.“

“What was?” I asked.

“Well, you just left and said, ‘I’m going to eat,’ and you didn’t ask us if we wanted to eat. You’re supposed to say, ‘Do you guys want to eat? ‘ and then we’ll say, ‘No, you go ahead,’ and then you can go eat your lunch.”

This made more sense when another friend informed us later that if you really want to give somebody something to eat, you don’t ask them if they want it. If you ask that question, they’ll think that you’re just asking to be polite. If you really want them to take it, you just bring it to them, and you can say  “Eat this” or “Take some”. This helped me understand why, when a group of guys came to visit our house, they all refused the drinks I offered them, until I just handed them out a little later.

In some ways, this is not all that different from Western culture: we’re generally told not to “eat in front of” someone who is visiting our house. It seems that here in West Africa, the idea extends a bit further – to customers of your business, or to people you are talking to on the street who, in my American mind, would obviously be eating with their families while I ate with mine.

The differences in food manners are more obvious when you share a meal with others here. A couple of days ago I went to a neighbor’s wedding, where I ate lunch. I was not sitting at a table with my wife and kids, as I would have been in the U.S.: the men sat in groups and the women sat in groups, and the kids not big enough to join one of these groups were with the ladies. They brought out big dishes of food out and set them on the ground, one in the middle of each group of five or six guys. Then everyone reached down from their chairs, stuck their hands (which, thankfully, had just been washed) into the rice and meat and started scooping it into their mouths. I’m pretty sure I won the prize for having the most rice on the ground in front of my chair, since I am used to eating it with utensils.

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If you really want people to give you a dirty look here, just stick your left hand into the dish. The left is considered the dirty hand, that you would use for doing gross things, so you can keep your right hand clean for eating. This could pose a problem for my son, who at age one and a half seems to prefer his left hand. A Nigerien lady who ate with us recently saw him shoveling in food with his left hand and queried, “He eats with THAT hand?”

Hmmm. His American parents never really bother to correct him for eating with the left when he’s sitting at our table. Could be a long life of dirty looks ahead for you, kid. Sorry.

Vocation: the stuff of dreams…and everyday life

Following God’s call on my life has meant moving a family with young children around the world. This is not an easy task. And some days, living out my “vocation” – my calling based on abilities, divine guidance, circumstances and relationships – requires doing things that look pretty different from the dreams of success I entertain, but just as important.

Vocation is one side expertise

               Gifting, accomplishment, tasks done with ease   –

The stuff of introductions, applications, CV’s

Then there’s what needs to be done

 Humility, service: non-marketable skills

Calling (the other side) serves those we love

Boldness in the face of persecution

Steadfastness in the face of threats and suffering

Patience in the doctor’s waiting room

Discipline, every day, the quotidien

 Changing lives through passionate engagement  –

Winning hearts with persuasive words

Shaping young hearts’ attitudes through discipline

Changing diapers (engaged, but not passionate)

Dazzling a classroom with scholarly insights

Crafting words to express timeless truths                  –

Training leaders and making disciples

Potty training and making breakfast

 Craft supplies from the closet for a little girl’s project

  Dazzling a child with bedtime Bible stories

Navigating conflicts between culture and Christian belief

Learning my host culture’s way of relating    –

Wisely adapting my manners and approach to varying contexts

Seeking wisdom to help my family adapt to our new context

Learning (still) my wife’s way of relating    –

Navigating conflicts between my family’s needs and my desires

 Mobilizing others to go across cultures in mission

Sharing what God is doing in the global church

Trying to keep the kids quiet in church

Motivating myself to go talk to my neighbors

Google Maps and Presidential Escorts: How to find your way around in Niamey

Last week, a presidential staff person helped me find out where to pay my water bill in Niamey. No joke. Well, I should specify that he’s a former member of the presidential staff – he’s now retired. You may be starting to think that I have lots of connections here and could get someone important to help me. Nope. I just found him sitting in the shade by the side of the road. It’s part of what I’m learning about how you get information and find places in West Africa. And the process involves more than a Google search – which means it is often far more…interesting.

“Googling” is a regular part of life in North America. I can remember the days, in my teenage years in the U.S., when people talked about the various search engines available online. For a little while, everyone had their own favorite. Then the multitude of options gradually diminished until “google” became a verb in the English language. Now, with privacy concerns in mind, I hear discussions about all the steps necessary to not use Google’s services (and thus allow them to use your data), as it can be difficult for some tech-loving Americans to not use Google! For me, as for many other Westerners, it’s just the normal way to find information; including finding directions to any new place I want to go.

But finding my way around with Google maps (usually via the app on my Android phone) has proven more difficult here. The road maps can still be helpful, but the data about my surroundings – names of stores, restaurants, streets, etc. – that Google can provide in the western world is just not there in the maps of most African cities. In Tacoma, WA, a lack of internet visibility is the death knell of a restaurant or store. There, if the consumer can’t find it through an online search, they’ll never bother to find it.* In Niamey, lack of internet visibility is normal. If a place has been identified on Google Maps, it’s usually either a government building or a business owned by foreigners.

Of course, in the U.S., it’s not just when you’re looking to go out and spend money that you use Google maps or a GPS. How often do people give each other directions to their houses now? In most of my exchanges, you just get the address. Then you punch it into your preferred electronic mapping /navigation service and you’ve got the directions. In Tacoma, if you’re lucky, you can click on “street view” and see the friend you’re going to visit waving at the camera, as they happened to be outside when the funny-looking little car went by. In Niamey, if you’re lucky, the house you’re going to has a house number posted somewhere(and it takes another stroke of luck to find a clearly posted street sign! But can you find the house by it’s address on Google Maps? No way.

Around here, then, it’s all about directions using landmarks. If what you’re looking for is close to a recognizable landmark, you give directions starting from that landmark. And if it’s not, a person who knows the way has to take you there for the first time, (then you have to remember the way the next time). When a repairman or delivery person comes to your house for the first time, it’s best to go meet them on the main road and show them the way to your house. When we were still freshly arrived but didn’t have our car yet, I called a refrigerator repairman and asked him to come to our house. I felt pretty embarrassed when I proved incapable of describing to him how to get to our house. In the end, he called the friend who had referred him to us, who was able to give him better directions over the phone, while I stood at the corner watching for his moto to come by.

But back to my ride with the guy from the presidential palace: I’ve discovered that, when you know the general neighborhood of the place you’re looking for but not the exact location, there’s a different kind of “Google” information service that can serve very well. If you’ll pardon an acronym, I’d say that the GOOGLE of Niamey is Groups Of Old Guys Lounging Everywhere. It works like this: when you get fairly close to the place you’re looking for, you look around for the nearest group of guys sitting under a tree or in the shade of a building, and you ask them where to find it. Assuming one of them speaks one of your languages, they’ll tell you which direction to go. You travel a little ways that direction, then you stop and ask another group. If you’re close to the destination, they can give you more detail or just point at it.

That’s how it happened last week, when I was trying to find the local office where I could pay my water bill. I knew the general location, so when I got close, I stopped and asked a group of guys. They sent me down the street, to where another group of guys pointed down an alley. I arrived at the not-at-all-well-marked office for the water company to find that they were closed for lunch break. I had parked my car parked in front of the first group of old guys, so when I went to get back in, they asked if I had found the water company. “Yes, but it was closed. I’ll come back in the afternoon.” One of them, who spoke French very well and a little bit of English, told me I could go to the post office to pay the bill instead. Since I didn’t know where it was, he climbed into my car to ride with me and show me the way. As we chatted on the way to the post office (which was better marked the water company, but still not in an obvious location), he told me that he has just retired from a government post working for the president of Niger.

At the post office, they informed us they were not yet taking payments for that month’s water bills, and I should come back in a week. Google could not have told me that, unfortunately. And only G.O.O.G.L.E. would dispatch a presidential staffer to help the no-name white foreigner go pay his water bill. As I said, it’s a less efficient system, but it certainly is an interesting one.

* With certain exceptions, of course, where a subculture or cult following keeps a business alive without internet presence.

Hey, taxi man!

In the western world, I’ve always been happy to use public transportation, if possible. My vision of an ideal lifestyle is one where I don’t need to own a car – a place where I can walk, bike or take efficient and practical public transit to all the places I regularly need to go. In the small American cities I grew up and went to college in, the efficient public transit option did not exist. In the mid-sized city of Tacoma, WA which I now call home in the U.S., well, it was only slightly better (i.e., there’s more public transit, but it’s not very efficient or practical). When I spent 6 months living near Paris and studying in the city, now, that was great ! The train network, the metro, the buses, with something running at all hours of day and night. The greatest challenge was paying attention to the strikes and demonstrations that often interrupt the schedule, but the system moves a lot of people with remarkable efficiency.

Now for West Africa. Public transportation is a great need here in this capital city of over a million people. But the need is not met by taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects. Rather, it’s met by hundreds of small white taxi cabs (with some Toyota vans in the mix, too, for larger crowds). The taxis can function like a bus system in an American or European city, or in the same way as taxis do in the cities I’ve lived in before. That is to say, there are some designated spots in the city where lots of cabs organize based on which part of the city they’re headed to (like a bus stop), and each vehicle fills up with 4 passengers in each car who pay a low fare. Or you can go to any main road, flag down a taxi and tell the driver where you want to go (Like one would in New York, DC or Chicago). If he’s already headed somewhere else, he may tell you he’s not going to your destination. Or he may just drive away without saying anything, leaving you to deduce that he wasn’t planning on going to your destination. When you flag someone down, he’ll usually stop along the way to pick up other people, assuming their destinations are along the same route. You can also use taxis the way people do in smaller cities in the U.S. : you call and ask them to pick you up. If you know a taxi driver that you like, then you keep his phone number handy for those times when you need him to come get you from home and take you somewhere that’s not on a « standard » route. That, of course, is the most expensive option. But if I want to take our whole family of four somewhere, (or bring the five chairs I just bought back home with me, for that matter), well, it requires paying a little bit more.

Of course, humans are not the only live passengers in this transit system. I climbed into the back of one taxi last week and greeted the driver and the lady riding in the front passenger seat. The baby she held in her arms stared wide-eyed at me, the white skinned stranger. Distracted by the baby, I did not notice the other passenger in the vehicle, until I heard a bleat just behind me. Then I turned my head and saw the curled horns of a ram in the back of the cab. When we reached the first stop, the cab driver climbed out to lift the sheep out of the hatchback and untie his legs.

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I remember seeing a news story about how the passengers on a commuter train in a Canadian city complained and were highly disturbed that a lady riding in their car was plucking a freshly slaughtered chicken during their train ride. I imagine that would not cause such an uproar here.

My very first taxi ride in Africa took much longer than normal for the distance traveled. I wasn’t going very far away, but I got to experience one of the perks of living in the capital city – waiting for the presidential motorcade to pass (groan!). Thus what should have been a 10-minute drive turned into an hour of waiting. The taxi driver was patient – even though I was his only passenger, he waited to get me to my destination. He wanted to earn a long-time customer who might pay the higher rate for pick-ups from home.

It turns out he speaks French (the official language, but not the most widely spoken) well and drives carefully. Neither of those two things can be taken for granted here. But then, come to think of it, that seems to be pretty consistent in general around the world (or at least a common complaint around the world) – taxi men who have a reputation as very aggressive drivers, but don’t always speak the official language very well. So I was glad to find an exception.

Soon our family will have a car to drive around : the paperwork for our car and our Nigerien drivers licenses is in process. I may not need to take many taxi rides after that. But, then, I may do it anyway, because it’s just plain interesting. Then again, driving around this city will certainly be interesting…just in a more stressful way, I imagine. Either mode of transportation promises many more stories to come.

Soon our family will have a car to drive around : the paperwork for our car and our Nigerien drivers licenses is in process. I may not need to take many taxi rides after that. But, then, I may do it anyway, because it’s just plain interesting. Then again, driving around this city will be plenty interesting…just in a more stressful way, I imagine. Either mode of transportation promises many more stories to come.