Five months in Africa's left us so full, and so empty of excuses not to learn.
Some lessons have come quietly, standing on top of solemn African hilltops. Others have come spiraling into our lives, all cold and bright and blue and left us a bleary eyed. We're trying to soak it all in.
Here are 5 ageless things we've been soaking in lately. It's what our world looks like right now.
They might sound familiar since you don't need to travel to learn them.
1. HUMANS DON'T CHANGE EVEN WHEN THEIR LANGUAGE DOES
I was stretched out in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser with a few of my Ivorian friends, fighting a language barrier and an embarrassingly small French vocabulary. I'd really scraped the bottom of the barrel. So I asked the only thing I could think of. "Do you guys have any favorite movies?" My friend Liliane's eyes lit all up and she said "Grey's Anatomy". The guy next to her said he liked Prison Break. I nodded casually like that was totally normal but I was dying inside. My friends over here are watching our shows, sitting on the edge of their African sofas and wondering if Derek and Meredith stay together or if Michael ever gets transferred. I made Liliane promise on the spot to watch her show with me someday soon.
But the whole thing really stayed with me for days afterward. It proved a truth I already had buried deep down, long before I stepped on Cote d'Ivoire soil. People aren't any less human when they're different from us–even when the differences are radical. I'm not talking grass huts and loin cloths, I'm talking about your next door neighbor. That's where it starts, at least for me.
We brand people in our minds. We don't mean to I think. We rank them by education, accent, living conditions, denomination, coolness. Lots more too. We decide who we want to relate to. In other words, we stay close to the humans who make us feel most comfortable about the way we are.
I've sort of fallen in love with how much I have in common with the people who live here. It's weird because we've lived pretty different lives. But the root stuff is the same. We have humanity in common. I hope it changes how I relate to other people when I fly back to the states too. We all fall in love and get broken hearts or upset stomachs, and we have weird relational problems and we get tired when we don't sleep. We all want to hope. We all have an inherent desire to worship and be loved.
I only say that because I've done my own share of staring wide-eyed into the faces of people radically different from me and I've tried to figure out how to relate. When you start with your humanity, it's easy. And it's real.
2. CELEBRATING SMALL THINGS MAKES YOU RICH
Christmas cookie frosting from home-ground sugar. A fierce breeze on a sunbaked day. Water that doesn't cut during a shower. Finding the way to the market with no maps and signs. Really small things like these have become triumphs lately.
We've learned to do more than survive the cultural differences. We're learning to celebrate them. To throw a little party when there's an extra-orange sunset or the liquid milk goes on sale and we stock up on it by the loads and break it out with toasted granola like greedy little misers.
Small stuff is is golden here, and we've never felt so rich.
3. EVERYTHING YOU THINK AND DO ISN'T THE BEST THING TO THINK AND DO
Learning this has been a continual process. By continual, I mean it's been like choking down a bitter dose of off-brand cold medicine, every day. Being here's made me question everything about what I grew up doing. Why do we wear certain clothes to dress up? Why do we offer people coffee with their dessert? Why do we sugar-coat truth? When did we become so aware of a personal bubble? Why is it rude to arrive places too late or too early? Why do we think we have rights?
I talk about this stuff with my friends a lot here. Sometimes they laugh at me. Sometimes I laugh with them. Or sometimes I get offended, I don't like being laughed at. Why don't I like being laughed at?
I'm learning to be ok about having differences with people. I'm learning to sit around a table and discuss the differences, even to laugh at them. In that way, living in another country is sort of like being a baby. Just when I thought I knew how to relate to people like an adult and budget finances, I went back to ground zero and I'm teething again.
It's awkward sometimes. We're learning how to be okay with that.
4. YOU CAN HATE RICE AND STILL LIVE HERE
Abe and I eat tacos and fresh salsa almost every day here. Also roasted coconut, hot crescents, tomato soup, and fruit sorbets on our fancy days.
On my first-ever plane trip here, I had visions of sitting in a grass skirt and eating piles of rice and fish eyes off a rock and pretending I liked it. I was scared about the food here. Then I remembered I could think outside a recipe book and work with what we found anywhere. I'm actually a little scared to go back to America now. There aren't mangos and baguettes at the corner market in America.
5. YOU AREN'T THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON IN THE WORLD
This is me pointing a finger at myself.
I never knew how obsessed I was with my rights. It didn't start with Africa for me, it started when I was a baby. My mom. My toys. My home. And I never let go.
Let me show you what I mean. Close your eyes and think through everything you've done so far today. Try it.
Now open them, and ask yourself how many of those things were for you.
Before I got here, my schedule was packed. Mostly full of things for me, but I wouldn't have said it like that. Actually, I felt like the busyness was my cross to bear. I felt spiritual about it.
The longer I've been here, the more my time has become about doing things for other people. That made me mad at first. But here's what I know for sure. My preferences are never more important than relating to people.
That includes my time, my comforts, and even sometimes my rights. My push-back with letting those things go proves how obsessed I am with me. If the point of my life is to show people Jesus and give them proof of the love He's poured into me, letting go of myself first is huge.
These are the things we're learning. This is what life looks like for us right now as we navigate a new culture and come face-to-face with the raw, unromantic truths of living life shoulder-to-shoulder with real people.
It's messy and it's beautiful. And wow we wouldn't trade it for anything.
Please drop a note and share. What's the deepest thing you've learned recently from your corner of the world?