I was the oddball. The one that didn’t fit in. My husband and I moved to a little village in Senegal, West Africa where we worked as missionaries. We knew French which kind of served as a “bridge” language, but we didn’t speak Wolof, Diola, or any of the other local languages that people spoke. French was our second language and often their third or fourth language. So we could only go so far in that language, and if they didn’t speak much French, our gestures would only carry us so far! I was the oddball because of my skin color, my hair color and texture, my eye color, the way I wore my clothes and did my makeup, the way I washed my clothes, the way I cut my chicken, and the way I mopped my floors. My husband and I were different from everyone around us. We were two American missionaries in the middle of a west African village. I was also the oddball because I didn’t have children (and all of the women of that village that I came across did), I didn’t work in a garden, I didn’t go to the market at an early hour to get produce for that day, I didn’t have the same beliefs about God that they did, and I didn’t spend time hauling water from the well (we actually paid a local woman to do that for us). How on earth was I ever going to get to know anyone in that village? How was I ever going to break down the walls of isolation, living so far from people of my own culture, language and beliefs, and make a friend? It was hard to wake up every morning and make myself get outside to greet my neighbors (a valued part of the West African culture), when it felt useless to me at times. I felt like I couldn’t relate to their lives. Some of them were their husband’s second or third wife. How was I to relate to that?
I learned in time, and from forcing myself to step outside of my comfort zone, and in forcing myself to get to know people that were different from me, that it really doesn’t matter if you have anything in common or not. It just matters that you show an interest in someone else’s life. It matters that you smile, say hi, ask how their day is going, and if their sick baby is feeling any better. It matters that you accept the (sometimes cloudy) drinking water they offer, eat the fish and rice they offer you with gratitude, and accept the last remaining chair to have a seat in. It matters that (at least woman to woman) you compliment them. Notice how their hair is braided and ask who did it. Ask which tailer made their dress and for what occasion it was sewn for.
Putting culture aside, human to human, there are always ways to connect with people. We’re all daughters, we’re (now) mothers, we all eat food and clean our floors, even if it looks different.
Maybe this is also where I gained an interest in asking questions. It’s how we get to know each other, it’s how we build friendships and form connections. Even a shy person will come out of their shell (if only for a moment) if you give them a compliment. “Hey, I like your green mascara. Where did you get it?” Boom, just like that, the foundation to a new friendship has been laid. “I love your Yassa Poulet (Senegalese chicken and rice dish). No one in the village makes it like you do. Can you show me how?” Boom, just like that, the foundation to a new friendship has been laid.
No matter the context, even if you’re the oddball in a village, or feeling isolated in your given community, you can, little by little, form friendships by looking for things to compliment people on, and by following up with a question in order to get to know them better.
Care about people and their lives, branch out by asking people questions about their lives, step outside of your comfort zone and outside of the walls of isolation, and say hi to someone!
I saw from my own experiences, that in time, even when it feels impossible and intimidating, you can find common ground and a relationship can take root. You can start with, “Can I borrow an egg?”, or, “Can you teach me the word for spoon in your language?”
(Submission for mops magazine on friendship in various contexts)