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)


  1. Beautiful. You are achieving awesome things there.
    I love you, papa.
    x Evie.

  2. Neat, Joe! Sounds like there is progress! Are you allowed to say what that uncertainty about inter-church relations is? I'm not getting it. Maybe I am not supposed to. Love you!, Co

  3. Perfect.
    We love you, and love what God is doing with you.

  4. Coba: we were sent here to guide the ERCB towards independence (growing dependency is a problem in almost all 'foreign aid' relations, church-wise or otherwise. In the past year the ERCB has made significant steps in that direction, and is seeking to gain more control over its own affairs. At the same time, change can sometimes be scary (remember when you were a teenager?), because growing independence also demands more responsibility. There are all kinds of dilemmas now being faced. Also with regard to the deployment of missionaries (us).