Mɔgɔ tɛ kɔrɔya kalan ma. Don o don, tulo bɛ taa kalanso. A person does not outgrow learning. Every day, the ear goes to school. (a Bambara proverb)
I arrived in Brussels at the end of July. Exhausted after traveling nonstop for three weeks across West Africa, I had only booked my first two nights in a hostel from the far reaches of middle Benin. I had two weeks to complete my MA thesis field research in Belgium and the Netherlands, but not a whole lot of money to do so. Determined to find a place to stay among the West African community in Brussels, I promised myself that I would find a bed to stay for the upcoming week within two days. While this was easy to do in West Africa, Europe had proved nearly impossible, even after working through networks for contacts for about a half year.Sunday evening, roughly 40 hours after my arrival, found me roaming around the gates of the enormous empty slaughterhouse of Brussels, greeting random Nigeriens and Congolese and watching a police helicopter overhead search for an Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (the North African branch) sleeper cell. I’d been unable to find a place to stay among the half-dozen phone numbers I’d procured in West Africa and was getting desperate. Just then, a Guinean – I’ll call him Amadou – called and said he would come and meet me right where I was. Amadou was the brother of a Guinean used bicycle seller who I’d called from a bus stop in southern Mali. On that call, his frigid response to my request to meet him was readily apparent. I should have realized an American cold calling a Guinean in Brussels from a random town in Mali is not a cold call that anyone could expect!
But there he was in Brussels, in a car to whisk me away somewhere. First we met a number of Guineans in an association meeting at a restaurant, then a Guinean family at their house. There, Amadou made lodging plans for my next week with a single Guinean man I never met. I never met this potential host because the next morning, Amadou picked me up a few hours later than planned and took me to yet another Guinean’s apartment. The first guy wasn’t available, but this guy was. Amadou didn’t even know his name, calling him simply Karamɔɔ, or Teacher. Literally overnight, I’d gone from a homeless outsider to a warmly welcomed guest, all through a chain of strangers.
My crazy methodology – immersive traveling
So why did I go through all of this? At first I’d thought it was just God proving to me I was more at home in West Africa than in Western Europe. I didn’t want to return to Brussels for the fourth time; I was dog-tired and ready to go home. But it was stay and research or give up and do nothing for two weeks. I ended up learning far more in last two weeks of my summer in Belgium and the Netherlands than I ever could have predicted. And I couldn’t have learned it without huge amounts of uncoordinated assistance making a veritable ‘chain of clay pots’ as a I wrote here before. This strategy of ‘immersive traveling’ had worked in West Africa, and I came around to it again in Europe. Its risks go without saying, but even when I could have stayed with Westerners, staying with Africans linked me to significant people that told me stories that exist in no book. These connections were not necessarily significant in their power: they were factory workers, bootstraps entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, old codgers, and students. In both Europe and Africa, they had far more meaningful things to tell me than professors living in their ivory tower or the World Bank wizards in their globe-trotting office lives. I’m still reading the books and articles, but I know that statistics and narratives only tell one side of the story – that of the outsider looking in. Though I could never “blend in”, I could at least listen to people speak without an interpreter, face to face and eye to eye. Whoever had time to speak and share found in me a welcoming ear. This meant making friends out of strangers, but also lots of dead ends and awkward conversations. I met those who could turn into collaborators for a lifetime and talked to many I will never see or hear from again.
Immersion is not merely a catchy 21st century idea, it is a tool. It helped and helps me understand where people are coming from and how they see the world. We as westerners talk about this all the time, not realizing that our own cultural baggage can never be thrown off. We want to learn in order to help without realizing how much help we need ourselves. In some of the poorest countries in the world, I felt far more needy than I do at home. Thing is, I am always a very needy person and have a very helpful Lord who provides more than I could ask or imagine. This thankfulness led to humility, which led to friendship. Friends can tell far better stories than statistics. I did a lot more listening than storytelling this summer, and I couldn’t have done it without out prayer and support from people all over the world. Now I hope to return the favor by telling you some of the unique stories I learned in language you can understand.