In the spirit of humor, I have to share an anecdote. I mentioned the first week that Burkinabé can be jokesters. Well one day this week I was waiting for Jean Paul (the same guy who was messing with me on my first day) to finish making copies so that we could drive to sort out an issue with my flight home. He told me that Dianne, who works next door, had told him that when I say hello I don’t really wave my hand—instead I just keep it stationary the way you would wave to a car that just let you go. I certainly hadn’t noticed anything, but Jean-Paul said (with a slight grin), “Dianne really likes that. You should do it more.” Somewhat confused, I looked at another girl working in the room, who furrowed her brow and shook her head. They finally explained to me that raising your hand at someone, the way I had apparently been doing to Dianne, is a symbol for placing a curse on them. Fortunately, no harm was done; I went to Dianne and told her sorry and that my hand gesture was a pretty normal way of waving in the States, and we had a good laugh. But I guess you never know what cultural nuances you might unexpectedly come across. (Jean-Paul’s first question to me the next day was whether I had said hello to Dianne yet).
Well, I’ve been reading two books on cultural observations in Africa. And one thing they both have emphasized is that, although Africa is an enormous continent with incredible diversity (in everything from culture to climate to language) there are some things common to all of Africa. I have often joked with a friend of mine (currently in South Africa on a research grant) about the country, Africa. If someone makes reference to “Africa”, one of us will occasionally ask the other, “wait what’s the capital of Africa again?” And I think there is a tendency for us in the West (and I’m guilty of this as well) to view the “dark continent” as a single entity. I can recall telling someone at U.Va. that I’d be in West Africa this summer and they said “wow, you’re gonna be in Africa for the World Cup!” I imagined an American getting excited about their close proximity to a World Cup in Brazil. (In fact I’m reminded of just how far I am from Johannesburg every time I see people shivering in thick jackets while watching the games). But in fact, there is an undeniable sense of African identity that I’ve noticed. And perhaps the easiest way to see that is in the World Cup. There is strong support for Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon especially, and some for South Africa. Largely missing from the picture is Algeria, which, while on the African continent, doesn’t really participate in that sub-Saharan African identity.
Speaking of the World Cup though, I was walking back on Sunday from the office (had to use the internet) lamenting that I didn’t have any way of watching the games. I had unfortunately missed the USA game against England, despite efforts to find it streaming online. But as I was walking home I came across a little phone boutique that had a TV set up on the counter, facing out. A few guys were crowded around watching Germany play Australia. Thrilled that I could finally watch a game, I decided to stay for a bit. I ended up talking to a few people and stayed for the entire game (it had barely started when I arrived). Since then I’ve gone every night to watch the 6:30 game and caught the tail end of one of the 2 o’clock games. So far, there have been anywhere from 7 guys to 15 or so, sitting on benches or on their motorbikes or just standing.
At different times, some of the men will get up and go behind the boutique to pray. Two of them own the store and a couple others work just across the street. Most of them have prayer rugs, although on the first day, one man just had an unfolded cardboard box that looked like it had been used as a rug for some time. I was so into the game that the thought of God never really crossed my mind. I’ve thought of myself as pretty well disciplined reading my Bible in the mornings these past few weeks, but this certainly went beyond that. I remember first being struck last summer, while in Morocco, by the devotion of many Muslims. Seeing these men made me think of a Newbigin quote I referenced last week, “There is something deeply repulsive in the attitude, sometimes found among Christians, which makes only grudging acknowledgement of the faith, the godliness, and the nobility to be found in the lives of non-Christians. Even more repulsive is the idea that in order to communicate the gospel to them one must, as it were, ferret out their hidden sins, show that their goodness is not so good after all, as a precondition for presenting the offer of grace in Christ. It is indeed true that in the presence of the cross we come to know that, whoever we are, we are sinners before the grace of God. But that knowledge is the result, not the precondition of grace” (180).
While I don’t think that all paths lead up the same mountain, and while I do think Christ is the only way, truth and life there is, there is something real about these men’s devotion. The God of the universe is at work in their lives, and it’s not for me to speak about the conditions of their souls. It is my job to speak truth, as I know it, and to act in love. Yet I do still wrestle with how, in the concrete moment, I can do that. What does it really mean to live theology? What does it mean to think with a Christian mind and speak with a Christian voice? I continuously return to this question. And as I think about returning home, I realize that this question is just as important there as it is in Burkina.