Saturday, 29 June 2013


There is something about Guillaume. Somehow he always makes me feel a bit guilty. He doesn’t say much. Not in meetings. And not otherwise either, at least when I’m around. But 3 out of 5 times after a meeting he comes out just as I am leaving, scrunches up his eyes and looks around, and if he can find me sidles up and says, in French even more primitive than my own: Psteur, blblblblbl vous voir… To which I reply: oh, shit… No, that’s not really what I say, out loud. Inside, maybe. With my mouth I have learned to say, when Guillaume approaches: dans quel but (to what purpose?) I say that, because Psteur, blblblbl vous voir translates: Pastor, I would like to come see you about something.
The first few times, I pulled out my planner and made an appointment with Guillaume. And he came to see me. On his bicycle, all the way from Tokpohoue, where he is elder. Guillaume doesn’t have a motorcycle, like most of the others, because he is pretty well blind from some degenerative eye condition. I am not going to say: fortunately so… But his visual impairment does explain why it is (fortunately) only 3 out of 5 times after a meeting that Guillaume comes out after me. The other 2 times he has also been hovering around by the door, but I have been able to slip by unnoticed.
Like I said, the first few times I actually made an appointment with Guillaume, and he came. On his bicycle. Bumping across the red dirt tracks for about two hours. If he didn’t accidentally take a wrong turn, somewhere along the way. And the subject was invariably money. Money which Guillaume didn’t have, but which Guillaume was looking for. It might be money to stucco the walls of the church at Tokpohoue. Or money for a member of his congregation who had fallen on hard times. Or money for a children’s bible quiz which Guillaume had organized but didn’t have prizes for. But as often as not, money for Guillaume himself.
Now some of you might say: well, is there anything wrong with that? To which I must answer: yes. For the past year-and-a-half we have been impressing upon the leaders of the ERCB that there is no direct access to DVN’s account through us. We can disburse money which has been allocated to specific purposes agreed upon in our accord with the ERCB. But only upon request of the church council (or perhaps the deacons) and within the terms of our partnership agreement. It has been an uphill battle, though not without success. With Guillaume, however, it has been an uphill mud-wrestle. Each time I explained that no, I cannot give you money just because you ask he would bob his head and smile with sudden understanding. And the next time he would be there again with another demand for money on precisely the same terms.
I started feeling sorry for Guillaume. No, actually I started feeling guilty. Imagine: this near-blind man, pedalling his way under a gruelling sun, falling over, getting up, remounting his bicycle, two hours one way, two hours back. And not once to any useful purpose. So one time, having again been cornered, I didn’t take out my planner, but asked: dans quel but? He stepped back, shamefaced, and sputtered. Blblblbl vous voir, he repeated. But I shook my head and held firm. No, I have a very full schedule this week, I said, so if I am to make an appointment with you, I really need to know what it is about. And lo, it was the usual. Then it is better you don’t come, I said. You know the rule. Money only that has been agreed upon with the churches. And only when the churches have discussed it and decided to make a request according to our agreement. And Guillaume would always bob his head, and smile, and stand there, waiting for me to say something.
The expression on Guillaume’s face at a moment like this does it to me every time. The only word I know which somehow comes close is hangdog. You don’t hear that word much nowadays. But to me it evokes the look on a black lab’s face when he is told to stay in the kitchen while the rest of the family is having a great time in full view but in the living room. You know that look. Jowls down, eyes brimming with disillusion, nose to the floor just across the line which marks off what is ours and what is his. Hangdog. That mixture of misery and self-pity, trying to get something but not daring to take it without permission.
Guillaume had that look again today. We had had a long intensive meeting of the consistoire. Yes, it had to do with money. But it had been a good meeting. For three-and-a-half hours the brothers had asked, advised, disagreed, concluded, delegated and reviewed. And it was time to go home. Last agenda item: divers… There was a letter. From Guillaume. The chairman, Théophile, said he had received it just before the meeting, and – although it was addressed to the consistoire – it was actually intended for the Pasteur Missionnaire and through him for DVN-GoWa. So he would read it and pass it directly on to me.
It was a well written letter. Clearly, Guillaume has a capable scribe. A flowery appetizer referring to the goodness of God and our gratitude for His provision, the reminder that things in life are sometime good, but sometimes also difficult. And then came the meat. If the consistoire would please render financial assistance for the following two purposes. First of all, the intended marriage of Guillaume to Brigitte. And in the second place, the construction of a workshop so that Guillaume could better carry out his daily work. Théophile was already folding the letter with a view to passing it on to me. Hold it, I said. Why are you all looking at me? The letter is addressed to you, isn’t it? It was silent for a moment. Yes, it is, sputtered someone. But Guillaume said… And anyway, we don’t have the money
I looked at Guillaume. He had that expression again. Hangdog. And me, I was going to be feeling guilty. Not. No way. Brothers, I said. I have two points to make. This letter, addressed to you, needs to be discussed by you. But not now. The agenda item ‘divers’ is not for any kind of discussion or decision making. Next time. Place it on the agenda then. And do with it, then, what you think best. And secondly, I will not be accepting it on behalf of DVN-GoWa then either. We have just spent hours arguing and agreeing that DVN-GoWa is not a life-line for individual situations, but is here to offer support to the churches. And that’s all I have to say.
It didn’t take long for the brothers to agree. Although there was someone who said: but it is kind of urgent, the first part at least… It turns out that Guillaume is getting married soon. Very soon. Soon as in the day after tomorrow. That’s our Guillaume. Two days before his marriage he discovers he doesn’t have the money. But no worries. Today is Consistoire. And the Pasteur Missionnaire will be there. Surely he will be happy to help out, n’est-ce pas?
I shook Guillaume’s hand as I left the meeting. No attempt this time to slip by unnoticed. Every blessing, Guillaume, I said. For you and on your marriage. He bobbed his head and smiled. And I left him standing there. Looking hangdog.
I hope Brigitte knows how to deal with him without feeling guilty.

Monday, 10 June 2013

"Si lui nous énerve…"

Yesterday was a good day. High point was a remark made by Daniel, elder at Djakotomey. Daniel and I sometimes have our differences. And yesterday…
But let me start at the beginning. The day began at 5 a.m., across the street, in the house which we have rented as office. Our Mariette lives at the back with her 5 children, in return for cleaning duties, reception of visitors like Théophile during his biweekly stay in the Mono-Couffo, and general caretaking. It was still dark when a neighbour came pounding on the door. Incendie, incendie! Smoke was pouring out of the window at the rear and from under the eaves, and flames were visible inside. Groggy and in their nightclothes, Mariette, Stephan, Louis, Synthia and Exaucé, baby Rabi in someone’s arms, found their way out of the house and watched in terror. The fire was in the storage room, accessible only from outside, but right next to the bedrooms where Mariette and the children had been sleeping. Francois, our night watchman was already half-way inside, throwing bucket after bucket of water in the direction of the flames, which were by now consuming the ceiling. There was plenty of food for the voracious flames, chipboard left over from the crate that our goods had been shipped in, assorted boxes and a 50-kilo bag of charcoal, several plastic containers of cooking oil, and most lethal of all, a jerry can with diesel fuel. Thank God, the latter still untouched by the flames!
All this we have second-hand: we ourselves didn’t wake up until 7.30, oblivious to the drama which had taken place and the incredible danger from which Mariette and her family had narrowly escaped. It wasn’t until after breakfast – our usual Saturday morning treat of freshly pressed orange juice, hotcakes with maple syrup, eggs and ham: yes, some traditions are too important to give up, even in Benin – that a very subdued Mariette came to us with the bad news. She hardly dared tell. True, no-one had been harmed, the fire had been fully extinguished, and the damage was restricted to the storage room and its ceiling, with only superficial blackening of the rafters above. But still. There was real fear in her eyes. Not just fright at her family’s narrow escape. But fear of what might be the consequences. Fear of us and what we might do to her because of what had happened. With our permission, she uses the storeroom as a kitchen when it rains, and the most likely explanation for the fire was that someone had left something not quite extinguished the night before… The fire: her fault. Or perhaps her one of her children’s. What would the pastor and his wife say? Would she have to pay? Or would she be told to find another place to live? Or perhaps even find another employer? Those were the  questions in her dark and troubled eyes.
And there you have it. Even though there is no-one closer to us here than Mariette. If anyone is a friend to us here, it is she. There are few subjects we cannot discuss. She corrects our French, we laugh, we give and take advice. We share our faith and the joys and troubles in our families and whatever else is truly important to us. I daresay we love her and we love her children. And yet, somewhere in a place we cannot reach or fathom there is something insecure in our relationship. What will they say? What will they do? Will they let us go, turn us away, stop being good to us?
This is not the first time, and it will not be the last, that we are confronted with the reality of a basic inequality in our relations with our African neighbours. Because that is what is the matter here. Who we are, and what we are, and how we are here as Europeans pervades every relationship we have. There is dependence, there is a sense of awe, there is the knowledge that if we withdraw our favour they will be left behind and we will move on. It’s not that we are enemies, far from it. But an enemy one can always count on to remain true to what he is. It’s the friend one should beware. Because friends may fall out.
No matter that we have our own insecurities as well. Those are hard to share with anyone here, even when we try. That makes us lonely, more often than we would like. For instance: our uncertainty about what will happen after November. Right now that future is very much up in the air. There are changes coming in the relationship between our respective churches. The permanent presence of missionaries, it has been agreed, will cease.  But it is unclear at this point what role there will be, if any, for Marijke and me. That uncertainty adds to the usual weight of being far away from home, working in a hostile environment and a foreign culture. At this moment, we need to reinvent our task and position, without clear direction or focus. Insecure. But how difficult it is to share that with the people who surround us. One says: don’t worry, God will keep you here for six years. (Not realizing that that is not exactly our ideal any more.) Another hears the word ‘uncertainty’ and is immediately and solely preoccupied with the practical impact on himself, should we depart for good. And a third gets no further than sadly affirming that we will be sorely missed. Yes, you rightly say: but that comes with the territory. A missionary needs to deal with that, each in his own way. With the best support possible from his home base.
But hold it, is your next thought, I thought you were going to tell us why yesterday was a good day? And what did Daniel say? Patience, say I. There was more than just Daniel’s remark. Yesterday was Saturday. School day at Kpodaha. One of the most gratifying things we are able to do here. After a busy school week for most, from throughout the Mono-Couffo, 23 potential church leaders between the ages of 16 and 26 or so come together for basic training in theology. Take Simon, for example. If he cannot organise a ride, he walks. Two hours to get there. Two hours to go back home. Together with a pastor or an elder we offer them a Bible Study or fashion a sermon outline, and then we teach two lessons on the various realms of faith and church life.  Simon has already been introduced to New Testament Overview, Sermon Preparation, Teaching Techniques, Christian Family Life, and Church History, to name just a few. And he is as eager as he was the Saturday last September that we began. Multiply him by 23 and you will understand already why yesterday was a good day.
But the high point truly was: Daniel. It was during the meeting of Consistoire, held in Djakotomey in the morning. I arrived uncharacteristically late, due to the fire and its aftermath. The brothers had already begun, as was only right. My role is very limited during these meetings. I am spectator, offer advice (usually only when asked), but leave the real work to them. Under the leadership of Théophile the brothers had already read and clarified for themselves the documents which were on the agenda. The most important concerned the uncertainty which I have referred to above: the changing relationship between our respective churches. It became clear to me that these church leaders had a very clear idea of what they want, and why. Thoughtfully and with relevant arguments each of the brothers advanced his point of view. Daniel had begun to do so as well. We need to take account of  a number of factors, he said, but one thing above all needs to be very clear. And then he looked at me. Oops, I thought. I hope he says something nice. Daniel and I sometimes have our differences, after all. Si lui nous énerve... he continued. If he upsets us… we tell him. And if we upset him, he tells us. That is something you cannot do with strangers…
That remark really made my day. There is a basic inequality in our relations with our African neighbours. This troubles us and frustrates us. That applies as fully in our inter-church relations. An inequality which will not be going away anytime soon. And which impacts on everything we say to each other or think we hear the other say. But here, yesterday, I heard Daniel clearly. We can be more than strangers. We have become more than strangers.

(PS: blog was written yesterday, internet was down)