There are days in this crazy life I’ve chosen where I totally feel like I’ve made it. Meaning, communication seems clear, the system is understandable, my life is full of rhythm and routine and all is well. I go grocery shopping without getting lost. The milk I ordered actually shows up in the amount I ordered. I can lecture in French and sit through a meeting and understand the ideas discussed, and once in awhile I can even say a few lines in Kirundi. But, rest assured, those days are so not the norm! Even after four years I still feel like I flounder through most of my days. Easier than the beginning yes, but “arrived”? Hardly.
I heard another missionary once say that every year he spends in his host culture he is able to understand another 1% of what’s going on. So based on that, I should be understanding about 4% of what happens around me! That might be underestimating, but in all honesty the longer I’m here, the more I realize I don’t know.
This “principle” can be illustrated by a couple of sort of humorous but definitely misunderstood events I’ve attended this last year. My teammates and I are invited to a goodly number of weddings every year. Social events like this are understood to be important for relationship building and community involvement, but they can also be decidedly uncomfortable...sometimes quite time consuming, definitely difficult in terms of communication, and awkward socially. So we usually send a “team representative” and share the load. Last August, Caleb and Krista and I decided to go to the wedding of one of the hospital nurses. Wedding invitations always include the location of the ceremony and reception, but not exactly an address. More like the name of the church and the neighborhood it’s in (and we’re not really familiar with neighborhoods in Gitega). So, off we went, dressed in our wedding finest. The wedding was taking place at a Catholic church and after asking around we were told it was located on the far end of Gitega. Easy enough, there’s a large Catholic church right on the road that we’ve passed many times. We parked and went in to the huge sanctuary. At the front were no fewer than 6 couples getting married at the same time! We found a seat towards the back, as the service had already started. But after a few minutes of searching, we all realized that 1-we didn’t recognize any of the guests, 2-we didn’t recognize any of the couples, and 3-this actually wasn’t the right church.
Back to the car. We followed some sketchy directions down a side road, and then multiple other side roads while getting directions from another half dozen passers-by. We finally found the “paroisse Yoba”, probably a 10 minute walk from the last church, and walked in just in time to see the bride and groom walking out down the aisle (along with 3 other couples, must have been a very popular day to get married!). On the upside, it was a very short time commitment. :)
On the other side of the spectrum, one of our long time hospital employees, Jean Dukundane, died a few weeks ago. He has faithfully served in the surgical department since the 1980s, and his death is a significant loss to Kibuye. Wanting to pay my respects, I paid close attention to the information of the service and burial. It was to take place the day before Easter, in our local church, starting at 11am. So, John and Caleb and I walked up around 11:15 and found a seat in the back. The pastor spoke for a very long time in Kirundi, and we understood almost none of it. The Bible passage was Matthew 27, Jesus’ crucifixion, so I spent some time pondering if this was either an appropriate passage for a funeral service or perhaps this wasn’t actually the funeral service. After about an hour, I finally realized that 1-I didn’t recognize any of the hospital staff there, 2-there was no casket or photo or anything, and 3-I actually wasn’t in the right place (found out later it was jut a regular Easter Saturday church service). I walked up to the hospital and found the “viewing” in our morning staff room, 1 1/2 hours after the event was supposed to begin. From there, everyone DID go to our local church for the funeral service, which began around 1pm.
We’re trying, we really are. And in my better moments I laugh all of these things off. It can be hard and frustrating and uncomfortable to try to participate in something without knowing any of the “rules” or instructions or social/societal cues. But, we press on because we know it’s the right thing to do. And every time gets a bit easier. I went to a wedding in Gitega last weekend (at the “original” Catholic church from the first story) and we made it to the right place at the right time, and it was nice! I take heart that maybe if I can understand just 1% more each year, by the time we’re done in Burundi maybe I’ll be getting close to understanding half of what takes place around me. :) But it also helps to continue to enlarge my perception of the world, to see new ways and ideas of doing things, to realize that things aren’t always easy for the immigrants in MY home, and to remember that no matter where we are on this earth, we are foreigners in a foreign land, looking forward to a permanent home.