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cathy-burkina-fullcathy-headshotBy Cathy Hird

In Burkina Faso, French is the common language because of its colonial history, but there are sixty indigenous languages. The culture is deeply West African with expectations and patterns a world away from Grey County. Sometimes the words were clear to those of us with enough French, but the meaning took more time to surface.

Sometimes when we travel we approach people and situations based on our North American expectations. If we expect an introduction to have a certain tone and it does not, we are unsure what to do next. If we expect that a bathroom should have a certain look, we may not feel comfortable when it has a different shape even if it works just as well. Bur really, why should our standard be the norm? The various kinds of latrines used in many other places are actually much more sanitary than our toilet: less contact, fewer places for bacteria or insects to hide, much easier to clean thoroughly.

When we are able to set aside our expectations and work with what is presented in front of us, we can see the value of the way things are done in a different climate, begin to build relationship in a different culture.

Letting go of expectations is an act of humility. We acknowledge our own standards, our sense of what is right, but we also acknowledge that they are our standards not the only standards. We acknowledge that what we see meets someone else's standard.

One of the things we forget when we meet people from the country is that as much as we don't know what to expect from them, they also don't know what to expect from us.

This was clear at the bridal shower I attended. A shower is a North American tradition, but local family and friends as well as European ones came. I sat at a table with Burkinabe friends. As typical shower activities took place, I tried to explain them to my tablemates. A couple times, they understood my words but had a hard time catching the meaning. We had some great laughs as we figured out the point of a jar of popsicle sticks with date suggestions written on them and the toilet paper dress.

After the standard shower games, we did not present gifts but instead shared recipes, inspiring quotes and advice for the bride. At the end of the event, the groom's family explained that this was actually similar to a local tradition: the night before the wedding, the aunts would gather with the bride to give her lots and lots of good advice.

The next day, at the traditional wedding in the groom's home village, the women we met at the shower greeted us with real warmth--they felt we would warm up to their traditions as they had warmed up to ours. We followed those who knew what was happening through a confusing but interesting afternoon. At the Catholic ceremony two days later, everyone from away adopted the Burkinabe tradition of wearing clothes made from the same cloth pattern--these were sewn by local tailors after we arrived.

Instead of expecting to act or dress the way we would at a North American wedding, for the sake of the long-term relationship of the bride and groom with his family and his community, we adopted all the local expectations that we could. We put our "normal" expectations aside for the sake of building strong, enduring community.

I began by saying that setting aside our expectations of what is normal is an act of humility: it acknowledges that others have different ideas that are good, normal. I want to add now that it is an act of hope: letting the cultural patterns of another influence us says that we can build relationships beyond the familiar; we can build bridges where there are now walls.

Taking on another's pattern takes work, but it is hopeful, hope-filled work. These small acts tell us that even where the walls are high and the gulfs wide, it is possible to find common ground. It is my hope that even in the world's most confusing situations, and those with entrenched violence, we can act with humility and hope to build common community.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister and writer living near Walter's Falls.


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