For the past year we have been preparing to life in the country of Niger in West Africa. It is one of the five poorest countries in the world. Sometimes when I tell people where we are moving, their first questions is, “Are you going to be a missionary?” While that is the reason I figured would bring me back to Africa, it is not our current situation.
As I have learned, to work at an embassy is to live the same life you live in the USA but your surroundings may be drastically different. For example, many of the people in Niger live in houses made of mud or straw. Our house will be similar to a home in Florida, complete with swimming pool. It is a very nice house with three bedrooms, spacious kitchen and a number of living spaces. Perhaps it would even be on the modest side in the States. In Africa, we will live like kings.
The last time I visited Africa was 2005 with a class from Seminary and we spent most of our time with university students. We pretty much lived how they lived down to showering in the same stall as the toilet which was a hole in the floor. I dressed like everyone else in the country: t-shirt, kanga (wrap skirt) and flip flops. It was glorious and I loved every second of it. This time around there will be expectations to play a bit more of the part of a diplomat. Dress nice, drive a car, hire a maid, and all that comes with the status.
Maybe you can tell, I am feeling a bit uneasy with this new life we will have for two years. The fact that some people have to walk for miles to get water and I have a swimming pool in my back yard seems a bit unfair. Balancing first world life in a third world country just might be the hardest part of living in Africa.
However, last week I met a gentleman who grew up in Congo and he brought to my attention something I’ve heard before, but in a different context. I had a friend in seminary who worked with the homeless and she had a hard time balancing her privilege with the people who needed her help. Someone told her that to help the homeless the most, she needed to be professional in dress, manners and lifestyle.
As I discussed the different situations in Africa with my new friend, I confessed that I was troubled by the disparity between the local population and myself. I told him that while I live in Africa, I would love to be part of the culture and perhaps teach, volunteer or be involved some way in making the little corner of my world a better place. But I couldn’t get over the pool in the backyard. He said to me, “How can you help , by understanding the poor by being poor or being rich enough to have a pool in your backyard?”
Give me the pool. The next challenge will be to find the best way my gifts can meet the greatest needs.