John James has just written a nice review of Philip Saunders’ book No Ordinary Book, which got me thinking. John writes:
In it’s favour though, I would say that although missionaries in Africa are often stereotyped as arrogant know-it-alls, such memoirs are actually far more open-minded and humble than many journalistic accounts. There’s very little politics, and there’s none of the Western journalists’ frequent desire to ‘explain the African’ or give cut-out solutions to the highlighted problems. Instead we meet real people, we learn about cultural differences and similarities, and we come away with a far more human account well removed from the ‘othering’ frequently found in western literature on Africa, whether it be by anthropologists or journalists. In short, I found it a far truer account to the the Ivorian life than many others, even if my Abidjan-life was far removed from the village.
This reminded me of a diary that I kept in our early days of working alongside the Saunders in the Kouya project. The extract below is of my third day in a Kouya village back in June 1988.
Spent most of the day trying to get the house looking less like a building site and more like a home.
Emile and Gilbert are both convinced that I am incapable of doing anything, every time I put my hand to a job, they come and take it over from me. I’m left wandering around the house like a lost soul, trailing half completed jobs around behind me.
In the afternoon I was whisked off to another house for what reason I couldn’t tell. When we got there, rather breathless, we found a baby, who was obviously not well, and her worried parents. What to do? I had no medicine with me and wouldn’t have known what to give even if I’d had some.
It’s at this sort of point where you realise how little preparation you’ve really had. Four years to get to this point and the first time any one in the village needs me I’m stuck. I suggested that we pray for the baby, and then I held her for a while, and told her parents how to keep her fever down. As I left they were squirting some foul vegetable preparation into her eyes, the poor little thing was in agony.
Church; lots of singing, none of which I could understand, I reintroduced myself and spoke about the fatherhood of God, with Emile translating. It was rather discouraging to have him translate the one word of Kouya that I used, (hello) because no one understood it.
Emile’s family gave me my evening meal, rice and peanut sauce, a pleasant relief from sardine sandwiches.
If you’d like to read the whole diary you can find it as a pdf here. It may be informative or interesting and, perhaps, amusing.