by Paul Thiessen
A dozen children pressed their noses against the screen of our porch staring into the white people’s house. “Look”, one of them said, “They have five kerosene lamps burning!” Yiin–Lampa mɔ́n kwɛŋl! At their homes a family had only one lamp burning. These white foreigners were very wealthy indeed! Our kitchen stove, kerosene refrigerator, library of schoolbooks and our pickup truck set us apart from our neighbors in the village.
The result of our lifestyle also meant that we often had excess material belongings that we wanted to get rid of. Usually, it was when we were preparing to go back to Canada for a furlough that we sorted our stuff and came up with bags or boxes of household goods we wanted to clean up.
On one occasion I tried selling some of our used children’s clothing in the local market. A white person selling things in an African market was very exceptional. But as people came to look at the clothes and as I told them the prices, the situation got quite out of hand. More and more women were coming, and they all wanted to buy the clothes I was selling. They clamored after them and argued among themselves turning the whole situation into a disaster. It seemed to me later that we had priced the clothing too low, resulting in chaos. No one was happy or satisfied in the end. We just wanted to get rid of a box of leftover clothes that our children had outgrown. For months after that, people came to our house wanting to buy children’s clothes. They thought we had become salespeople who brought clothes from somewhere to sell in the village. I don’t think they could imagine that these were all extra clothes that our own children had outgrown.
One year, as we prepared to leave for furlough, we gave our worker packages of clothes and other things to distribute in the village. A neighbour found out and got upset with us and with our worker because he felt left out of the deal. Next time we left all our stuff in the care of that neighbour who had felt left out the last time. The result of that was that people in the village complained they hadn’t gotten anything.
When we burned papers or threw stuff into the garbage pit, people got upset with us because we were destroying valuable belongings. They wanted these things. When we burned household papers, the neighbour kids rummaged through the smouldering piles, pulled out papers and took them home, dropping some along the path where they became an eyesore. The local women who cooked and sold food beside the road wanted our children’s discarded school notebooks to use the pages to wrap food in. Old, empty, discarded paper cement bags were very valuable. They had multiple layers of clean paper inside that were perfect for wrapping up a handful of bean cakes for the buyer.
We came to realize that we needed to become more sensitive to the values of the people around us, considering what might be of value to them. They were truly brilliant when it came to reusing things, repurposing worn out items and making the most of what they had.
Growing up in Steinbach, Manitoba, I had learned many lessons about the importance of extending the life of things instead of throwing them away. That was during my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s. I often thought about my parents’ frugal lifestyle when I watched our neighbours in the village.
Fellow missionaries in a distant village were having the same problems as we were having. So, while we were in Canada on furlough one year, they stopped at our house and dropped stuff (broken toys and the like) into our outdoor toilet pit to avoid criticism in their own village.
Two missionary families gave their house workers their old kitchen stoves when they were leaving or upgrading. Our worker found out and was angry because we hadn’t given him our stove.
If we threw away outdated, expired medicines, people got upset with us because some of them can still be used after the expiry date. So one year, as we were sorting our stuff, getting ready for our next furlough, we packed up a large boxful of expired medicines, pills, and other healthcare goods. As we were leaving for Canada, we gave our neighbour instructions to take them to the nearby dispensary with the following explanation: “These are old, expired medicines. Some may still be useful. Others will be useless. Use what you can and throw away the rest.” Instead, he brought the sealed box to the dispensary and, without additional explanation, said, “Here is a donation from the local missionaries.” The nurses at the dispensary were horrified by the contents and accused us of mockery and ill will. We gained a reputation of being wealthy people who just give away our garbage! Had I really communicated clearly what our intention was? Had I given my explanation in ways that were understood? Maybe there was a communication problem here.
One year we left a large pile of household goods in our porch with instructions for our worker and another neighbour to dispose of them together. They were to divide it among themselves and pass on some of it to their friends and neighbours. We left the stuff in their care. A year later, when I returned for a visit, the older of the two complained and said that our worker had taken the best stuff and sneaked it off to his house before they met together to dispose of it. By the time they did their planned sorting together, the best things were gone. She felt cheated, because she and her extended family had not gotten anything of value.
When other missionary families packed up and left the country, they always had to dispose of their belongings, and they did it in a variety of ways. They sold some to fellow missionaries. Someone had not gotten something. Someone else had gotten more. The prices were too high. Finally, a missionary family decided that they would do it right, after years of unhappy experiences. They turned all of their stuff over to the local church leaders, telling them to sell it. The household goods were spread out for sale on tables, with prices on each item. Everything was sold and disposed of after the missionaries had left. One day, some weeks later, I was travelling on a local bus and overheard two local people talking—I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me. They were saying to each other that the local church had had a sale of missionary goods and the church leaders had given priority to their church members. The church members had gotten all the good stuff for good prices, and then, after that, they had opened up the sale to the general public. These travelers sitting beside me on the bus were upset and angry because they hadn’t been able to benefit from this incredible sale of quality goods.
To avoid the hassles of giving away stuff in the village (or selling it) we sometimes packed a box of goods and took it far away to the city. There in the market we offered the boxful of goods to merchants who paid us for the entire lot. They were happy to get things they could resell, and we were happy for an easy way to get rid of the boxful of stuff. However, we knew that our friends and neighbours in the village would have been upset with us if they had found out we had done this. Why would we not give them the benefit of receiving stuff we didn’t want? The answer was that it was too messy and complicated and frustrating to disperse stuff in the village.
Sometimes I wonder how these stories would sound if they were told from the perspective of the local village people. It seems like we never got it right, not even after 30 years of living in the village. Why couldn’t we ever get it right? Is this simply an inevitable problem caused by people who have too much stuff?
I think that there are recycling lessons we can learn from people in other cultures that would benefit us and help us live more harmoniously with the natural world and with our neighbours.
For shorter-term missionaries this problem was not as acute—because they had fewer goods to deal with and mostly because they never had to deal with the personal and community relationship damage that their “disposals” had caused. The reason we had so much trouble is that we spent 30 years trying to build relationships in a community where we lived at a different economic level from our neighbors. We so often wondered whether the economic disparity cancelled out the message of hope we were trying to communicate or whether learning how to share what we had in a culturally helpful way could be part of the calling.
I have not written this article with a conclusion that is satisfactory. Many questions remain unanswered. Writing about these different events has been for me part of a journey of learning about the past, evaluating what happened and anticipating that we will make some progress in understanding people that live differently than we do.
Paul is a linguist and translator. He worked in Burkina Faso with his wife Lois until his retirement and now does translation consultation from his home in Blumenort, Manitoba.