Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Art of Being a Guest

I went up to the Fulani village last Wednesday to celebrate the Feast of the Ram, and was reminded of the variety of hospitality methods I encounter in Cameroon. The Jacksons and many of the Cameroonian families in Bamenda have a “Welcome to the family,” hospitality.
our house and backyard

When someone comes over, he or she is welcomed, offered something to eat or drink, then everyone basically goes back to whatever they were doing before the person came, while making sure the person feels included in the family’s activities. At our house, this includes everything from preparing dinner, to working on computers, to having evening devotions, to celebrating birthdays, or even watching Jack Bower fight terrorists in our favorite TV show, “24”. Our guests also can usually help themselves to whatever they need. This style of hospitality is casual, and to be a good guest, you just need to take initiative to participate in the family activities.

Pizza Night at our house with my friends Karissa Clark and Elaine Scherrer

On the other hand, when I visit the Fulani compounds, they give a “Let me serve you,” hospitality. There are lots of hugs and shaking of hands. There are strings of greetings, asking about my health, my city, my house, my family, and other things I mechanically respond to and don’t actually understand, since it’s all in the Fulfulde language.

The women of the compound where we always stay

Being a good guest looks very different in a Fulani compound. Here are the strings of thoughts running through my head as I enter the compound: “Remove your shoes before entering the house.” “Don’t serve yourself the food, wait for them to serve you.” “Use your right hand to give or receive anything.” “Don’t make too much eye-contact with the men.” “Keep your legs covered.” “Don’t ask for more; wait until they ask you.” After practicing this art of being a respectful guest numerous times, I think it’s almost coming naturally! Last time I visited, one of the women in the village commended me on having “Pulaku,” or knowing the Fulani’s cultural standards of proper interactions.

Although it can be somewhat awkward for me to remember to do some of these counter-intuitive things, the rewards are well worth it. They are so pleased to see us putting an effort into learning their culture, and they go out of their way to serve us. If the women find out we like a certain kind of food, they are sure to make it for us. They always make sure we have enough food before serving themselves. They offer us sugar cubes for our tea, even if they only have a few left. If we’re spending the night, we get the best beds and the nicest bed sheets. I always feel very honored when I visit the village, and it motivates me to continue to try to learn the Fulani language and culture, which, based on their response to my blundering attempts at the language and manners, seems like the best way of serving them in return.

Me, Sarah (a week-long visitor with the Jacksons), Alex (a two-month boarder), and Jarrod getting ready to feast!

Carrying water for one of the older women of the compound (My first time carrying water on my head!)

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