The Dowry has Been Delivered

I recently  experienced something new.  I’ve been to lots of weddings during our 15 years in Niger, but I’ve never been part of delivering the dowry.

Before I go on let me say that I have decided I must break out of my chronological rut.  I have several blog  titles waiting to be written – still in month 2 of our 5 month journey – but I’m realizing that I am going to have to insert current stuff in the midst of those posts, or none of it will ever get written.  So here’s to flexibility.

Back to dowry day…

Sukala, aka Ibrahim, has been a part of our family since we arrived in Niger in 1998.  He and Trae ‘grew up’ together, even though he’s several years older than Trae.  Sukala learned English by spending most of his time in our house.  He calls us Mom and Dad.  He call’s Neal’s parents Grama and Grampa.  If you’ve ever visited us in Niger, you will remember Sukala.

He and Tobi painting the Cornhole game

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He’s now and grown and works with us in the ministry.  He is a man of many talents, some of the strongest being children’s and music ministry.  I’m convinced he’s ADD and that has driven him to figure out how to fix electrical and plumbing stuff, play the piano, drums, guitar and who knows what else.  He can work as an interpreter and he can cook.  Yesterday he was out chopping down (with a hatchet) a huge branch that broke off our mango tree in the dust storm.  Today he’s helping to lead the youth meetings with a drama team we are hosting from the U.S.  He is a great multi-tasker (also known as getting off focus!), is very giving, and often the life of the party.

He also helps put up Christmas trees.

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He loves God and he has finally found the love of his life.  Rakkiya.  We’re excited for him.  We met Rakkiya when she interviewed for a teaching position in our primary school.  Neal and I liked her immediately and felt she’d be a great teacher.  When she left our house, I told Neal that this is exactly the kind of girl that Sukala needs.  But we didn’t / couldn’t say anything to him.  I did however pray in that direction.  While we were in the U.S. this summer we talked with Sukala and he told us that he ‘met’ someone.  I was quite excited when he told me that someone was Rakkiya.  It was then I told him my thoughts about her.  He was happy about that!

Culturally in Niger when you ‘meet’ someone, that typically means it’s someone you are interested in marrying.  Sukala talked with Rakkiya’s family and also with his pastor, Pastor Moctar.  Everyone was in agreement but they were waiting for us to return from the U.S  before setting a date.  The setting of the date is similar to an engagement.  And there are several things that need to take place – protocols if you will.  Since I am the ‘mom’ (one of them, Sukala has several people he would consider mom), I was asked, along with a group of 3 other ladies to bring the sadaki (dowry).  The dowry had already been arranged between the family and the pastor.  Sukala and Rakkiya wanted to do all the protocols at one time, which suited me just fine!

Here’s what was required of Sukala:

1. Alkawali or Tambaya (the promise or the ‘will you marry me’ question) – ~ $100

2. Valise – the giving of a suitcase filled with new clothes, shoes and other personal things for the bride.  This is given to her family.  ~ $200

3. The actual Sadaki (dowry)  ~$600

4. Goro (kola nut)  This is given to be handed out to people when they are told about the wedding.  It’s part of the celebration.  ~$40

The prices are set by the family of the bride.

As I said, this was all new to me and I had much to learn.  The delivery date and time had been set.  So off we went.  Salamatu, Me, Mariama and Natalie.  These are all ladies I know well and I was so happy to be in their company.

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Here is Sukala modeling with the suitcase (4 suitcases it turns out) and the big bag of kola nuts in the back of our truck just before we leave for the event.  I think he’s a bit nervous.

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Have I mentioned that I’ve not done this before?  Though my friends had much more of an idea what to expect than I did, I think we were all surprised when we arrived at the house to a large group of ladies waiting for us.

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Since I was the one that was expected to deliver the ‘envelope’, I made sure someone was nearby me at all times, whispering instructions in my ear.  One thing I did understand is that this was serious business and setting a good foundation with the family was important.  I didn’t want to do it wrong.

We took off our shoes, went into the house,  sat on mats and chit chatted for a bit.  I asked some questions and tried to figure out who Rakkiya’s mom was.  A woman who was quite up in years was pointed out to me and I was quite surprised since I know Rakkiya to be in her 20’s.  I talked some with the ‘mom’ and she was happy to know that I spoke Hausa.  This was a large group of Hausa women which rather intimidated me.  I can manage in Hausa pretty well when I’m speaking to people who don’t use Hausa as their first language.  We’re both on the same page then.  But now I’ve been thrown into a room of experts.  A bit scary.  Water was served and then Natalie whispered to me that after the water we should go back outside and I would give the envelope to the man sitting outside the house – in the  courtyard area.  There were actually 3 men out there.   We put our shoes back on and the 4 of us went out.  You must picture this – the doors and windows are all open so the ladies inside can see us outside, and vice versa.  The man you can see in this picture is the first man I gave the money to.

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I wasn’t sure what I was expected to say but I carried the envelope with all the cash out and handed it to the man sitting there (making sure to use my right hand).  I said that we were very happy to receive Rakkiya into our family.  He took the envelope, took out the money and counted it.  Good, we’re done then.

Nope.  He puts the money back into the envelope and hands it back to me!  Ummm, Natalie!?  Help?  She indicates that I should now give the envelope to the other man.  He takes it and hands it to the man sitting next to him, who proceeds to hand it back to man #2, who then hands it back to me!  Again!  NATALIE?

Natalie and I were getting pretty skilled at communicating with very little communication (she’s so gracious and doing her best to make me look good), and I figure out that I’m to go inside and give the envelope to the woman who I was told is the mom. Turns out she’s Rakkiya’s aunt.  Culturally neither Rakkiya or her family are around for this event.  I’m wondering the same thing you are.  Why?  I don’t really know the answer except to say ‘it’s cultural’.

She takes the money and there is some discussion about counting it.  I didn’t follow it all but was later told that they said there was no reason to count it because I was a white person.  I’m just telling you what was said so no discrimination comments!

Now it was time to unwrap the suitcase(es).  It was a big box that we ladies carried in together with the big sack of goro (kola nut).  Another woman was given the honors.  She got the box off and tried to open the suitcase.  It was locked with a combination.  After an appropriate amount of attempts and fails, I decided I should try and help.  No directions, no combinations given.  I decided to try 000. It worked.  Thankfully.  We did this 3 more times.  I found it funny that there was a plastic hanger in each suitcase.  The discussion ensued about the suitcase.  Often the groom will fill the suitcase himself.  I explained, as Sukala had explained to me, that he would rather just give the money and let them do it.   Then I said, “Well, I’m sure Sukala knows you will know much better than he what to put inside.”  For some reason that brought gales of laughter.  Yep. Gales.  I’m not sure why, but maybe under clothing is included in that and they found it funny that Sukala didn’t want to deal with that.  Anyway, they were happy.

Unwrapping the suitcase.  The kola nuts are on the right.

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Displaying the suitcase.

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After the unveiling of the suitcase, the aunt began to dance and sing around it and everyone joined in.  I knew the song too, so that was fun.

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We sat for a few more minutes and I asked my ladies if it would be appropriate for me to share a testimony about Rakkiya and Sukala.  I was given the go-ahead by all so I stood up.  I first asked if they were understanding my Hausa.  Affirmative.  I started by saying how much we had appreciated Rakkiya in our school and that she had an excellent testimony there.  Then I shared the story of the interview and our decision that this was the girl for Sukala.  They loved hearing that, so I’m glad I shared it.  There were gasps and comments like ‘aikin Ubangiji! (the work of the Lord).  I then asked Salamatu to pray before we got ready to leave.  After that some of the ladies brought out some drinks and yogurt and some kola nut.  There was also sugar and a bucket of millet paste (used to make the traditional millet drink called fura).  I thought they were going to pass them around to everyone there.  But they sat it next to me.  Then they handed me some money (about $40).  They said this was a sign of their thanksgiving, and their acceptance, really, of Sukala. It was pretty cool.

Here they are before we put the stuff in the car, discussing what is to be done with it.

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Culturally, I guess when something like that is done, it’s ‘shared’ between the dowry deliverer’s and the groom.  Again, new to me.  But not surprising.  So we made our way back to my house, where Sukala was very anxiously waiting.  He was outside the gate when we pulled up.  He was jumping around like a typical ADD person.  I got out and said to him, ‘Sorry, they didn’t agree’.  I then went to open the back and he said ‘I know there’s nothing in there!’.  He thought I was opening it to show them that his suitcase and kola nut were still in there – unreceived.  So he let out a shout (a loud shout) when I opened and told him all these things were given in thanksgiving.

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Sukala is excited!

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We unloaded it and my ladies began to divide everything into to piles of 5.  One for the groom, and one for each of us.  The stuff in the front is the millet.  Tobi’s excited too!  He and Tobi are like brothers.

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This is what the kola nut looks like.

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It was a great experience and one I was honored to be a part of.  I overheard conversations and have found that the job of we 4 Musketeers has just begun.  The dowry delivery was only the beginning of our wedding responsibilities.  I don’t  know what else will be expected of me, but I’m confident my friends will let me know!

Oh, by the way, the wedding date has been set for September 21st.

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It was an honor to be a part of this significant event in Sukala’s life and I’m so glad I agreed to do it.  I’ll admit I hesitated for a tiny second when he asked, only because we have been back in the country less than a week after 5 months away, I was still very jet-lagged (functioning on 3 hours of sleep in 2 days), and preparing for a team from the US arriving in 2 days.  But there are just some things  you do no matter what.  This was one of them.

Big is Beautiful?

I happen to live in a country where the bigger you are, the better. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. It’s a sign of prosperity – you can afford to eat! I also live in a country where the dress code is conducive to unnoticeable weight gain. Take the common wrapper for instance. It’s a piece of cloth, 3 yards long. It’s standard wear for women. Skinny ones, fat ones (of which there are very few), and pregnant ones (of which there are very many).   One size does fit all. Now consider the smock or baby doll style top. Standard cover for the upper half. Can you see what I’m getting at? One could easily gain 10 pounds wearing these clothes and have no clue!

And if that’s not enough, one is encouraged to be big. In fact if one embarks on any type of weight loss effort and does begin to lose weight, he or she is constantly asked if he is sick. Why would you want to lose weight on purpose? Take Hannatu for instance. Remember the crying bride from my first post? Well Hannatu helps me in the kitchen. She worked for us in Maradi and when we moved, I hated to lose her. But I was not interested in being responsible for a single girl in Niamey. Besides, her fiance’, Yahaya, worked at our cake bakery in Maradi. This past year, we took over a bread bakery here in Niamey. We needed someone to bake the bread. Yahaya knew how. I was thrilled, knowing that they were soon to be married and he would bring her to Niamey as well. She’s back, and I’m happy. I think she’s happy too. I taught her how to make things like tortillas, bagels, pizza, lasagna, enchilada’s etc, and wasn’t really interested in starting all over. Back to big… We were working together in the kitchen yesterday, and I was telling her about the weight reduction plan Neal and I were on. Her enviously slim self replied. “Why? I can see you’ve already reduced. You’re good like this.” Now one might think that to be a nice complement. But you didn’t see her body language. While telling me how good I looked, she assumed a sort of sumo-wrestler stance – arms and legs straddled indicating there was too much fat in the way for them to hang loosely. Enough encouragement to make one forget the reduction plan and run straight to Taco Bell – if in fact there was one available.

And then there was the ministry team that came to visit several years ago. (Not mentioning names, you know who you are!) On the team there were some generously bodied ladies, myself included. We took the team to a village we hadn’t been to before to ride camels. Some of the ladies in the village were chattering among themselves. Nothing strange about that. But one lady finally approached me, and asked me a very sincere question. I started laughing so hard, I couldn’t even translate it to the bewildered team around me. This lady was looking around at all of us and said, “Where can we get some of that medicine that makes you fat?”

Such are the trials and tribulations I face at trying to be thin in a ‘wannabe fat world.’

Haircuts and prayer mats.

Yesterday, Trae told me he needed a haircut.  That’s a rare thing.  Not that he needs a haircut, but that the idea came from him.  You see, he’s sporting a long style these days.  Quite long.  We have a nice hair salon in Niamey, owned and operated by a Lebanese man.  Trae has his own wheels (a cross motorbike) so I began to explain to him how to get there.   He said “You don’t want to take me?”  Knowing him, and his tendency towards independence, I was surprised.  One thing I’ve learned in these teen years it to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself to communicate and spend time together.

Trae usually drives his bike to school, but today, since I was going to pick him up, he rode with us.  Tobi went to a birthday party, and Tanika had a piano lesson.  We waited for her to finish, and then were on our way to see Roger’, our hair guy.  I was proud of myself for remembering how to maneuver through the Grand Marche’ with all the taxi’s, to the one way street.  I was happy to find an open parking ‘place’ on the street across from the salon.  What I wasn’t happy about was the man on the street waving his arms and making angry faces at me.  I assumed I had parked in his way.  So I backed up.  More angry man.  Trae opened the door.  “Mom, you drove over his mat – twice!”  What was the big deal one might ask?  Well, let me tell you, it was a major offense.  It was his prayer mat.  Of course I didn’t see it, but as far as he was concerned, I drove over it because it was in my way.  One can learn much about this culture with what happened next.  I felt terrible about the offense I had caused this man.  You see, you would never even walk on someone’s mat, prayer or other.  If required to walk on it, you would always remove your shoes.  You certainly wouldn’t drive on it!!  After finally figuring out how to park, I got out of the car to face the angry, offended man.  I spoke to him in Hausa, hoping he would understand since that was my only option. (Niamey is a Zarma region, and I don’t speak Zarma).  I approached him, apologizing, explaining how sorry I was and that I didn’t see the mat from my car.  His countenance immediately changed, and he began to smile.   He waved his hand and said ‘ba kome’ (no problem).  No problem!!??  Seconds before I should have been put in jail for my offense (not really, but almost!)  I apologized again and waved.  He waved back like we were old friends.  And you know what?  If I see him there again, we would be able to chat like we were old friends.  If only all of us would be so quick to forgive!

By the way, Trae’s haircut?  Turned out great.  He’s as good-looking as ever.  Though much shorter than he expected, it wasn’t my fault, it was Roger’s.  Looks like I’m in the clear all around!

Community in Niger

I’ve finally done it. I’ve taken the plunge. I’ve joined the world of bloggers. You’ll have to forgive my ‘site’, but I’m still working on it. I really don’t know what I’m doing, so not even sure how it looks. I have been very lazy in my journal writing for a very long time. I’ve written it in my head dozens of times. And now that so much time has passed, I’m very annoyed that I haven’t done it. I’ve missed writing about so many great (and I suppose not so great) things. I continue to be amazed at how many people were interested in my journaling, and have asked why I haven’t been writing. So, I’m trying something new. I thought maybe if I used this format, I’d be more committed to my writing. I was actually inspired by my friend’s blog site – thanks Patty.

There’s no way I can catch up with all I’ve missed, but maybe as I write, past things will come up. But for today, I want to write about community.

I live in Africa. There are many misconceptions about life here. But one thing I think most people understand is that community is a way of life in Africa. By that I mean people’s lives revolve around each other. Not just their families, but their entire village. In Niger, a good majority of the people are born in their village, live there, and die there, never having gone further than the nearest market – on foot. Most ‘Westerners’ first response to that would be to think how tragic it is. But I’ve driven or walked through many of those villages. Though most of the people have been through at least one tragic event, tragedy is not what you see on their faces. They are smiling faces. Women laughing and chattering around the well as they pull up their water. This is where information is exchanged. I guess I can call it like it is – gossip! They pound their grain together – 2 pestles pounding rhythmically in the same mortar. They make the work look easy – even fun! Everyone knows everything about everyone. The good, the bad and the ugly. The men sit under trees weaving, playing cards and yes, gossiping. Children are everywhere – they are running, teasing, rolling old tires with sticks and making ‘cars’ out of tin cans. Baby naming ceremonies are huge events, with most of the village attending, as well as people from surrounding villages near and far. Same with weddings. But those who live in the developed world and visit a Niger village can see only what they consider to be sub-standard living conditions. They have to pull water from a well by hand, they cook outside over an open fire, they have their babies in their mud homes, they live in temperatures greater than 110 degrees much of the year – with no electricity to even run a fan, they eat from a community tray – with their hands! But if you look beyond all of this, you will see happiness on the faces you look at. This is their life. There is no doubt, they face much tragedy: most have had a baby or child die, disease is common, hunger is common, education is lacking-if not non-existent. I could go on. But in all of that, they have each other. The whole village is there to help them, and to just be with them in the situations they face. And then they go on. These things aren’t the reasons their lives are tragic. We are working to help them improve their living situations, but the biggest tragedy is the fact that most of them don’t know Jesus. (We are working to change that too!) Where will they spend eternity? Their life on this earth is short compared to that!

Today we had a wedding in a village, uniting the children of 2 of our pastors. It was wonderful. But the bride cried during the ceremony. She cried the entire 30 minute drive we took to her new husband’s village, and cried (sobbed, really) as the village ladies came by to greet her. You see, she grew up in her village. Spent all of her life there. Hannatu and Yahaya were very much looking forward to getting married, as they had been ‘promised’ for more than 2 years. But today, reality hit home. Hannatu was leaving her community. And it was hard. I was sitting next to her on the mat covered dirt floor, pretty much at a loss for words, as the women came to see her. I told them that she was sad and they should encourage her, as they understood how she was feeling. Many of them were transplants themselves. One lady said to me, “Don’t worry about her. She’s not sad, she’s really very happy.” What was I thinking? A new community has already begun!