In my previous post Praying for a generosity of spirit, I touched on current news themes about accepting or rejecting the stranger and the foreigner in our midst.
A week or so ago I received my friend Clare Orr’s prayer letter from Senegal where she works with SIL in literacy and numeracy development with a number of Senegalese languages.
Clare’s account of how she relates to local people is fascinating; but the ways in which the local people relate to her, a stranger and foreigner, are impressive and very challenging.
First Clare shared observations about the people she lives with…
I recently had a visitor stay with me for a week. Rebecca has been in Senegal since October, on a six-month placement with SIL, Wycliffe’s partner organisation here. The time I spent with her and the discussions we had made me reflect on my time here.
Setting off for church on Christmas Day
Rebecca’s time with my host family was her first experience of life in a Senegalese home. That household is something I continually give thanks for, and she joined me in singing their praises. The fact that my host mum, Tante Adèle, opens her house to whoever might turn up has become almost commonplace to me – and yet it is still something amazing. At the beginning of the school year, she got a phone call from someone in her late husband’s village. The next day, that woman’s 27-year-old son turned up on our doorstep. He moved in and started attending a school in Ziguinchor.
There are three other guys living here aged between 19 and 26, plus a 7-year-old, all connections from her late husband’s village, all in Ziguinchor for education. Plus me. And over Christmas three of her own children were back, one of them brought another friend, another girl from her husband’s village came for a week, and so on. And yet Tante never complains about having to look after so many people. And even though they – we – aren’t even all related by blood, we look out for one another. Homework time? Those further on in school help those in younger years. English homework gets brought to me, of course! Whenever my water filter is empty, I ask one of the guys to fetch me some water. Need something carried, an errand done, to borrow phone credit? Ask and someone will help out. Everyone has their turn at cooking, sweeping, dishwashing.
Even more impressive is how the local community relates to Clare…
Then there are my neighbours. Women who have never left Senegal, women who have rarely encountered Westerners, women who speak little French. Yet they are always quick to greet me. They are happy to welcome me into their homes, to be patient with my Wolof as we sit and chat in a language that is neither my nor their first language, nor our second.
At Christmas, my host family cooked extra food and sent it to the homes of our neighbours who don’t celebrate Christmas – and our neighbours had done the same for us when they had a religious festival in September. These are women who have little in common with me, an outsider, but have chosen to accept me into their lives.
Every time I leave the house, whichever direction I go, someone calls out my Senegalese name, Soda. Sometimes just one person, sometimes three or four, sometimes a dozen. Occasionally, I know their name too. More often, I’ve forgotten it! With my host family, we joke that if someone is being given directions for our house, there’s no point in telling them to ask for anyone else – but if they ask anyone in the neighbourhood for Soda’s house, they’ll be shown to our front door.
When people who don’t know me see me, they shout out “toubab”, white person. I’d rather they didn’t shout toubab – so that’s why they all know me name. I tell them, no, please don’t call me toubab. My name is Soda (or aunty Soda to children).
Sometimes I find it annoying. Sometimes I feel like I’m being watched wherever I go. Sometimes I feel like I’d rather stay in rather than going out and having to talk to people I barely know – because if someone greets me by name, I can’t just ignore them. But more often, it’s reassuring. I feel safety in the fact that I’m known. These people may not know me well, but they know me to see, they know my name, and if I ever needed them, I know they’d come to my help. Also, even if I don’t recognise someone, I can tell whether or not they actually know me by whether or not they know my name.
Thank you to Clare for allowing me to re-blog this – and for the honesty in your writing. I think there is so much to teach those of us who live in less welcoming communities – whether our lack of welcome stems from culture, politics, suspicion, fear or just self-centred laziness.