Written by Eryn Austin-Bergen
|Chris Austin (left) and a colleague enjoy the hospitality of Mbaye Marong (right) as he hosts them in his village and makes attaya, traditional Gambian tea (there should always be time for tea!)|
Everything is dark inside.
It takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust coming in out of the blazing afternoon sunshine. I shuffle into the small, mudbrick room and am directed to sit on an oversized chair of carved hardwood and foam cushions with worn blue and white floral fabric covers. Even though I am just a child, I am given a place of honour next to my parents. As my eyes grow accustomed to the dim, filtered light I start to see the room—old, yellowed photographs pinned to the walls, a wooden table with plastic cups and bowls. The floor under our feet is hard-packed mud, tidily swept clean just this morning.
Our host calls a young boy to him, presses a few coins into his hand, and tells him to run quickly and fetch sugar and tea from the local bitico (corner store). Hot coals, a pitcher of water, and a tea set are brought in. I can hear the voices of women calling outside and the sound of a struggling chicken. Lunch is being prepared. In an hour or so, we’ll be gathered around a bowl of food—rice, chicken, sauce—a feast prepared just for us.
I grew up in the 1980s in a small town on the north bank of The Gambia River. My family was the only foreign family for miles around; we were the first white people many children in the area had ever seen. There wasn’t a lot of electricity or running water. People got around mostly on foot, bicycle, or horse cart. The pace of life was slow. The majority of the population fit well below the poverty line.
Most families still lived in rural villages and practiced subsistence farming (mostly peanuts) to make a living. Education was sparse, healthcare was dodgy, and people ate only two meals a day, or less during the “hungry season”. They were who we might call “dirt poor.”
But that didn’t stop them from extending such lavish hospitality as to shame the average wealthy westerner like me. Deep cultural values of sacrificial generosity and caring for the stranger dictated that when my family showed up in a village, our host went above and beyond to care for us. Cool water was provided to parch our thirst, furniture (often their best chair from inside) was placed under a shade tree so we could rest from our journey, tea and sugar were purchased to make us feel comfortable, and cook-fires were lit to prepare a meal to satisfy our hunger. A good host would even slaughter a chicken to honour our presence—a major financial sacrifice!
|Eryn as a young child, sitting in her father's project garden managed by a group of local women.|
But this wasn’t treatment only we received as foreigners. Local visitors were also fed and cared for. From the little they had the hosts gave everything.
The other night my husband and I offered to bring dinner to some acquaintances who are in the process of packing up their entire lives and moving across the world. We’d already committed to bringing grilled meat, so I was sorely disappointed when I opened our freezer and found only one package of “bangers.” We had two other packages of a different kind of sausage, but I hesitated. I counted and recounted the bangers, trying to figure out if we could make them stretch to feed us all. It wasn’t that we didn’t have enough meat in the freezer to bring more over; it was that I didn’t want to.
I didn’t want to share our organic, grass-fed, very expensive meat. I wanted to keep it for ourselves. We live on a tight budget and we only get to buy so much fancy meat a month.
When it’s gone, it’s gone. I didn’t want it to be gone. I thought about going to the store to pick up cheap meat. I thought about making a big salad and adding more potatoes to the pot already boiling on the stove. I stood over the counter, staring at those frozen sausages, racking my brain for a way to keep them for myself. Then I remembered my childhood, my heritage, and I was ashamed. I remembered all those chickens slaughtered for me, all those times a family probably went without a meal so I, their guest, could eat. I quickly pulled out a second package of meat and set it to thawing.
In that moment I realized “the poor” can outdo us “wealthy ones” any day of the week when it comes to sacrificially sharing food. While they lack material resources, they are profoundly rich in hospitality.
Perhaps it’s because they often live in shame/honour cultures where it is shameful for a host to not go above and beyond to honour her guest. Perhaps it’s because they know what it’s like to be completely dependent on the compassion of others for survival in a harsh environment. Or, perhaps it’s because their own experience of the awful, gnawing reality of true hunger means they don’t want that for any other person, ever.
Ironically, we who are wealthy in food resources can often be poor in sharing. As westerners, our fierce individualism and independence can sometimes result in a poverty of hospitality. We never want to be thought of as weak or needy, so we refuse the lavish kindness of neighbours. We focus on our individual survival which causes us to calculate how much we need (or want) and subtract that from what we have in order to determine whether or not we can “afford” to offer hospitality to another. When we do extend ourselves, it’s most often for those we already know and love, rather than for strangers.
I’m humbled and grateful I had the privilege of growing up among the materially poor. It set my hospitality compass. Last week when I was leaning towards saving the best for myself and my family and shortchanging our new friends, that compass gave me a sharp turn and pointed me relentlessly in the right direction—to follow the example of those rich in hospitality and sacrificially share my food.
About the Author: Eryn grew up the child of missionaries in The Gambia, West Africa, in the early 1980s. As an adult working for FH Canada, she encountered “When Helping Hurts” by Brian Fikkert and applied his teaching to reflect on childhood experiences in which “the poor” taught her life lessons that reveal the poverty of “the wealthy.”