catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 9 :: 2012.04.27 — 2012.05.10


An American question

One thing I learned quickly in Africa: communication requires much more than simply learning the language, than learning vocabulary and sentence structure and what words and gestures are and are not acceptable. It has as much to do with asking the right questions as it has to do with knowing how to ask a question.

In America, we ask what the baby’s name will be practically as soon as we learn a baby is expected. In Africa, much of Africa, a baby is never named, nor are names even considered, before a child is born because too many pregnancies do not produce healthy nor live babies.  We take for granted the birth of a baby in the western world. In much of the world, it would be seen as unseemly or even presumptuous to ask the name of an unborn child.

In America, we ask where will you be going on vacation, assuming it is the right of every family to spend time entertaining themselves, doing no work other than smearing each other with sun lotion. In Africa, vacation is an unknown word. During the rainy season, life revolves around the planting and weeding and harvesting because a day of neglect could make for a hungrier family during the dry season. I say hungrier because even a good harvest will still be cause for hungry days and weeks from the time the remaining grain is planted and the harvest. 

Well, don’t they rest after the harvest?  There is still the daily work: the beating of grain into flour, the traveling up to two miles for water to mix with the grain to make it edible, the drying of grasses to repair the roof or weave into sleeping mats or fencing to keep the animals out.

In America, we ask little children what they will be when they grow up, expecting to hear words like “nurse” or “doctor” or “fire fighter” or “worker like my daddy.”  In Africa, one never asks this question for it seldom has any answer other than a strange look. You assume I will grow up? What does it mean “to grow up?” What is there to be other than a farmer like my family?

We raise our children to be good students, to go to a trade school or a college or a university, so they can make money and live the good life: a house and cars and all manner of things to plug in.  In so many parts of the world, there are scarcely the words or understanding of a “good life.” Living is good, and dying is bad.

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