I have had a very chaotic and trying week with car breakdowns and schedule delays forcing me to flex constantly. Flexibility is a requirement of the missionary job. I have learned by experience that flexibility is defined as never insisting that God follow my orderly program, but rather choosing always to adjust as needed to His schedule and His way of doing things, even when it makes no sense to me. Refusing to be flexible in Africa is the path to an ulcer.

Because I am enjoying an unexpected day off this Friday, but am exhausted from driving 4 hours each day and working (and flexing) hard for the rest of the week, I am going to make this post simple and just list some of the idiosyncrasies of African culture which I have encountered on this trip. These things seem perfectly normal in this culture but may seem odd to a westerner, and because of that, though small and insignificant, offer insight into Africa.

The Slogan

I noticed the motto on the back of a t-shirt worn by one of the bishops I work with on Buvuma Island in Lake Victoria: “An improved toilet is a family’s pride.” I asked him what it meant because I thought it was a strange thing to write on a t-shirt. He explained that in his community there was a program to help families build healthier toilets near their homes and that he had participated in it because of its importance to the health and welfare of his village. In the villages, the toilets are out-houses constructed over a hole in the ground with a concrete slab placed over the hole and then a hole chopped in the middle of the slab with a pick-axe or drill of some kind. A structure for privacy is then built around this slab.

For health reasons, the hole must be a certain depth to prevent germs from traveling up and out, but not everyone knows this, and many of these home toilets are unhealthy affairs that may spread disease to the family. Education and community support of the type offered by the program mentioned on the t-shirt provide solutions to this problem. I’m pretty sure, though, that most westerners would balk at such a slogan, which shows how far one culture has come and how far the other has yet to go.

Formica

I wanted to purchase a piece of Formica for an experiment with a better projector surface (which ultimately was a complete failure, by the way – live and learn). Alfred and I shopped for it in the building district. We pulled into the district and immediately were accosted by several young men who saw the musungu and assumed that money was to be had. They insisted not only on directing us to the proper shop, but also accompanying us. By the time we had filtered through several shops and finally found one that had a piece of white Formica, the pair of us had instead become a caravan. I was greatly amused because by the time I paid for my Formica, it required the services of 7 men, standing by eagerly, and 1 woman, who ran the shop and actually sold me the product. I’m not sure how the men thought they were going to profit from the sale (perhaps the woman gave them a kick-back), but Alfred and I, who are capable adult shoppers, and did not require or request the escort, quickly took our Formica and escaped, though I did “tip” the seeming leader of the band just before we drove away.

Alfred’s Leg

At our conferences I am always amazed at how much rice and beans the people can put away in a short time at lunch. While I eat one conservative helping, those around me pile their plates full to the brim and overflowing and then proceed to gobble it all down. It is a running joke with Alfred that he has a hollow leg which he must fill along with his stomach at every meal. This week, during one such lunch, Alfred leaned over to me and said in all seriousness, “My appetite is gone after eating only three plates.” I think he is beginning to catch the dry western sense of humor because he did not so much as smile, but there was a bit of a twinkle in his eye.

The stubborn door from the outside.

The stubborn door from the outside.

The Man, The Brick And The Door

At the church-planting conference early this week, we had a door near where I was teaching that needed to be closed, but it had no latch and was really just some rough boards nailed together with some tin sheeting and held crookedly in place on bent hinges. It continually kept flying open. Finally, one of the leaders sitting nearby got a brick and leaned it against the bottom of the door, but the gap between the bottom of the door and the ground was about the same size as the brick. The effect of this was that the top of the brick barely touched the bottom of the door so that it would lean there holding the door closed until the first breeze, then give up the battle and fall back into the room, the door then flying open again. I watched this leader repeat the exercise of closing the door and tipping the edge of the brick against the door exactly five times, each time the door flying back open after only a few minutes. All this time I was trying to teach the lesson.

The door from the inside; Notice my equipment box holding it at the bottom!

The door from the inside; Notice my equipment box holding it at the bottom!

Finally, on the theory that if you repeat the same thing over and over in exactly the same way, eventually something will change, he was carefully tipping the apparently useless brick for the sixth time. It’s possible that he hoped by patiently repeating the exercise, the door might finally be humbled into staying closed, or perhaps the brick might at last be encouraged to “stand up and act like a brick and do its #!!% job.”

I confess – I couldn’t stand it anymore. All this drama with the door was going on right next to and in the middle of my teaching, and each time the scene was repeated, all the students’ eyes slowly drifted to the tense contest being played out between the man, the brick and the door. So I pushed one of my half empty equipment boxes up against the door to keep it closed. Apparently, this either cowed the door or inspired the brick because the door stopped flying open. The man, now bereft of his job, instead of sitting down to enjoy the class, wandered off to find some other project, but at least he was not doing it right behind me. Later, I heard that his name was Sisyphus, but I may have misunderstood that.

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