It felt so wrong. We had come “to serve,” not to be fed. How could we Americans share a meal with our West African brothers and sisters? Wasn’t there a nice, rich meal awaiting us back at our team’s hotel? Wouldn’t we be taking their food? Wouldn’t it be more loving and fair to leave before they felt obligated to share with us?
These were the questions my teammates and I were wrestling with by Day 4 of our trip to West Africa. Add to that the reservations bound to come when eating in a “Third World country.” In a region where the hand is used, not silverware. Where there’s no sink to “wash up” according to Western standards of hygiene. Where the meal’s ingredients, preparation, and flavors are mostly foreign. Where the language barrier means you can only sit, watch, and listen as you passively partake.
We were spending our days in teaching sessions from about 9am to 2pm or so, when we wrapped up for the mid-day meal to be served at roughly 3pm. But mealtime for us Americans was filled with angst and mixed feelings. Maybe our noble desire to not take their food, along with our Western discomfort, got the best of us. And besides, hadn’t we come to teach? Wasn’t our “job” done by the time the meal was served?
But was it really a noble and loving impulse that made us hesitate to eat with them? Or was our American value system clouding our assessment of the situation? What would it take for us to love our West African friends, not according to our ideas and definitions, but according to theirs?
Well, it took observation, question-asking, openness. We began learning that in their culture, mealtime is central, and eating is only ever communal. (I’ve heard that in some parts of West Africa, a person eating off by themselves is assumed to be demon-possessed; it simply doesn’t fit.) Having a place around the bowl isn’t based on “invitation”; if one is present, one is included. Hospitality (teranga in the Wolof language) is a way of life, a duty not a choice. And honor and shame are more powerful forces than earning one’s place.
In light of all that, we realized we risked shaming our West African friends by rushing off before mealtime; we wouldn’t be allowing them to honor us as foreigners, to extend to us teranga as is their reflex. We began to see that our fear of taking their food or catching germs was a masked pride which did not belong.
We had spent months preparing Bible lessons and activities. All along, we’d been calling ourselves one family in Christ. But what does family mean in West Africa if not eating together? Could it be that our teaching and testimony would be undermined by a seemingly noble refusal to partake with them around the bowl? We decided to err on the side of caution and cultural sensitivity. Following each day’s three teaching sessions, we ate together and started calling it “Fourth Session.”
As foreigners, it’s on us to do what it takes to understand, not wait until we’re told that how we’re behaving is wrong or unloving. And as counter-intuitive as it seems, we may need to look for ways not just to serve, but to be served. Going to another culture only as “server” can demonstrate an attitude of “I have, and you have not.” However, going both as “server” and “served” can demonstrate respect and an attitude of “I may have x, but you have y; our need of each other is mutual.”
It’s hard. It’s humbling. It feels wrong. I felt the tension as I reached my hand into the bowl of ceebu yapp (rice and meat) one afternoon. I was sitting beside M*, a mother of eight whose eyes shone with a weary, patient, enduring love though she rarely smiled. The mothers generally ate separately from their children. But M* made an exception for her youngest who often joined her around a bowl. I noticed that they would tear off pieces of meat and put them in the child’s “section” — they make sure the youngest gets his or her share of protein, especially since they may not be strong or quick enough to get it for themselves. And then I noticed that M* was putting pieces of meat in my section. How could this be fair, I asked myself. Between me and her child, I don’t know if M* got any protein during that meal. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. I was like a child, needing to be looked out for. I had to swallow my pride, along with my mouthful of ceebu yapp, and accept the teranga of this mother. All I could do was say, “Jookanjal, Yaya” (Thank you, Mother). And that brought a rare smile to her face.
Do we forget that Jesus first asked the Samaritan woman for a drink? Kenneth Bailey, in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, argues that Jesus sets forth a profound theology of mission in this act.
Jesus so totally humbles himself that he needs her services. Jesus does not establish his initial relationship with her by explaining how she needs him and his message. That will come later. Rather his opening line means, “I am week and need help! Can you help me?” (p. 203)
Bailey quotes Daniel T. Niles, a Sri Lankan theologian, who also speaks of the example that Jesus set:
He was a true servant because He was at the mercy of those whom He came to serve. … This weakness of Jesus, we His disciples must share. To serve from a position of power is not true service but beneficence. … The only way to build love between two people or two groups of people is to be so related to each other as to stand in need of each other. The Christian community must serve. It must also be in a position where it needs to be served. (p. 203-204)
In our day, a style of mission appears to continue to flow from the developed nations to the developing world that affirms the strength of the giver and the weakness of the receiver. … This tends to stimulate pride in the giver and humiliation in the receiver. … As a bearer of the gospel, the one sent will participate in the life of the church in that place, receive the sacraments from its leadership, and be enriched by its fellowship in Christ. In this way the cycle of pride in the giver and humiliation on the part of the receiver is broken. (p. 204)
From that perspective, any opportunity to be fed becomes powerful. No matter the foreign culture or ministry role, our job doesn’t end when the work day is finished and the meal is served. In some ways, that’s when our work begins.
Photos by Dick Senzig and Stephen Tenpenny
*This country is a sensitive location, due to its majority Muslim population. To protect the identities of national Christians, I don’t include their full names.