Jan 06 - Pt II Shake, take, and give with your right hand! and other cultural mores
I pretty quickly adopted Zach's constant wearing of sandals (except when Jessica and I run), so of course my feet are always dusty too. Almost everyone here wears some sort of sandals, so they frequently carry, or have at their doorways what looks like a large plastic tea kettle, often in bright colors, with a contrasting bright color dripped down the side, giving it an almost marbled look. These are filled with water and used throughout the day to deal with the dust and the general washing of hands. There was an old monastic practice that on every Thursdays evening, in honor of the Last Supper, one of the monks would wash all the other's feet as a physical expression of his willingness to service toward all. Thoughts: A) I now see the incredibly practical application of Jesus' actions B) that would be a faith-filled gentle gesture of service at any mission in such a dusty place to have a Thursday feet washing service in which the missionaries was the feet of the people C) if not feet washing (though Jesus does kind of command it, see John 13:14-15) wouldn't it be a beautiful household practice to have a Thursday evening rotating gesture of service to one another?
Back to N'Djamena. Presumably these plastic water kettles have another very important function ... washing one's backside. One of Zach's first bits of advice was "You guys haven't messed up so far , but always do everything with your right hand. Shake with your right; take with your right; give with your right hand. Never the left." This is because in almost all of the non-Westernized toilets, there's not toilet paper. Jessica, always scatological-minded wanted to know how this worked, so sitting in the Charlotte airport she looked up just how someone is supposed to use that left hand. The secret, by the way, is to wet your left hand first, otherwise the smell *sticks* around, then taking that kettle (or whatever cultural form it takes) you squat over the hole, pour the water down your crack (hopefully avoiding getting your pants soaked) and do what you need to do with the left to get clean. Then clean both hands REALLY well with the soap and you're good to go.
So it's with good reason that interacting with someone using your left hand is a pretty severe sign of disrespect. You are allowed to hold things with your left, so you can take with the right, pass it to your left hand, manipulate it as you need, pass it back to the right and hand it back. This is hard to remember, and I know I've insulted more than a couple people by handing them things with my left hand. I think they forgive the poor N'Saarah (foreigner, sp?) but still ...
Another cultural minefield is greeting people. If you're going to interact with someone for more than five seconds, or so, you must shake their hands (with your right hand!), and spend time asking after their day: "Ca va?" "Ca va, bien. Merci. Comment votre-sante?" "C'est Bien. Merci." If you don't, especially if you know the person, even casually, they will think you are mad at them. This can be hard when you are one of a handful of n'saarah (though we do all look alike) and you have met dozens of Chadians. Everyone knows you, and you are desperate to recognize them so as to be polite. You also must greet waiters, merchants, any villagers who show up to a public health lecture you're at, and almost every child you run across because most want to shake the hand of the n'saarah (which they will often yell at you as you go by if they are too afraid to shake your hand).
Children do not learn French until they go to school, so it's "La-pia" to all the young ones, which is Nanjirai one of the 200 tribal languages that exist in Chad. The largest language groups are Nanjirai, Gumbai, Arabic, Filani, and French kind of acts as a literal lingua franca among people, though it's more likely to be known by men than women, simply because men are more like to go to school than women. Some people here know an amazing amount of languages: Allah, who I will write more about later, speaks at least 4 (Nanjirai, Gumbai, French and English); Naomi, who acts as the primary translator for the hospital, speaks about 10!
So at the police station, our first major stop after the airport, walking past the Muslim men in the police compound at prayer on their prayer rugs, we greet and ask after each of the four women secretaries who take our information again, staple our extra passport photos to the forms, and wish us well. One of the women, through Zach, said "Hey, I'm from Bere!" (where we were headed) "Do you know ...?" This exchange among people is pretty common as connections are important, and apparently most people will search through several possible avenues of connection before they find one, and they almost always do. It's like six-degrees of Kevin Bacon for all of Chad.