Friday, October 07, 2011

Congo Culture Day 4

It’s midnight and I just remembered I needed to blog! So today’s entry will be short and sweet and mundane. I would like to talk about honking. [Pictured: Brazzaville Taxi]

In the US the car horn is used with much restraint. With the phenomenon of road rage, I think we’re actually afraid to honk at this point. Not in Congo. Restrained is the opposite of how the horn is employed. Liberally and loudly the horn is used. Really, the more the better. You honk at pedestrians and at other cars to warn them you’re coming through. You honk when other guys cut you off. You honk when you’re stuck in traffic. You honk when the light turns green (not because the person in front of you fails to move, just right when it changes everybody in the line-up honks!). And let’s not forget the taxis that run a set route like a bus who continually honk their horn the ENTIRE time to let people know they’re available.

In America I’ve tried to give just a friendly honk to someone in front of me when they don’t go on green and they get very grumpy about it! From that I’ve discerned that the horn should only be employed in emergency situations. I wish that we could all just find a happy medium between the excessive honking of Congo and the no honking rule of the US!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Congo Culture Day 3

Day 3: The Exteeeeeended Family
(happy 8 month birthday to Maria!)

Here in Congo relationships are often measured in family terms. You refer to friends as either big or little brothers and sisters…as in “this is my little sister” when introducing a girl who is younger than you. The word for an older sibling is “yaya” and you can place this in front of a name…as in “Ya Espérance” if you are speaking to your older brother/sister. There isn’t a way to use a younger sibling’s name with a title, but you can just call them “petit”…as in “Petit, comment ça va?” You refer to people your parents’ age or older as “mama” and “papa/tata,” sometimes placing their first or last name afterwards…as in “Mama Jessica” or “Tata Kouka”. This is also the polite way to refer to any adult or stranger even if they’re not old enough to be your parents.

When Congolese people use family terms, it also implies certain rights and responsibilities that apply to that relationship. For example, in Congolese culture my nephew and niece are considered to be my own children and they would refer to me as being their mother. This implies that I have the responsibilities of a mom towards them, making sure they have what they need. It also means I have the right to discipline them or otherwise intervene in their lives like a mom would.

The use of family terms has recently turned into a joke with Espérance because I pointed out that he doesn’t actually have any “friends.” He only has brothers and sisters! I’ve seriously never heard him refer to anyone here as “friend”. If he were to do so, I imagine he would mean that the person was just an acquaintance. He’s always saying things like, “He is my brother. He’s REALLY a brother!” and by that he means they knew each other growing up or had some experiences together or they just really like each other…basically it means they’re friends in American English. But to him it’s much more than that and to refer to someone as a friend just doesn’t express the affection he has for the person.

This brings me to muse about the whole Sapir/Whorf hypothesis, that the structure of a language determines the way its speakers conceptualize their world…Does language influence our culture or does culture influence our language? Is it the kind of relationships that Congolese people build with each other that leads them to use family terms, whereas we in the US are more distant and individualistic so we don’t? Would it change my perspective on people, or the way that I treat them, if I were to refer to them using family terms? Or do we all in the end have the same kind of relationships and just speak of them differently?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Congo Culture Day 2

Day 2 Being Bossy

Here in Congo it’s a lot easier to tell other people what to do or to give them advice. You just say it matter of fact. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that there is a definite age hierarchy. You must respect anyone who is older than you, and from the time you’re able to talk you’re allowed to boss around anyone who is younger. You don’t have to couch what you say with phrases like, “I was wondering if maybe you could possibly think about picking up some bread at the store for me?” No, no, just say, “Hey you, go buy bread.” If you’re really nice, you say “please.” And the same goes for giving advice; just give it to them directly, no beating around the bush.

I think that one of the reasons they are able to tell others what to do so bluntly is that it’s considered a loving act and not rude. Giving advice is a way of showing someone that you care. This makes it really easy to exhort someone from the Scriptures, although whether or not they actually take it to heart is another matter.

It can be a bit frustrating for me when I go out with Maria. They like to bundle their babies up here, so people are always yelling at me, “You need to cover your child well!” “Why didn’t you put a hat on her?” (Note that we’re living on the Equator, not the North Pole.) I need to remember that people say such things to be helpful, not critical (at least that’s a nice way of looking at it whether or not it’s a culturally accurate observation!).

There are the perks, although it’s hard for me to really feel comfortable bossing around people who are younger than me. I’m just now getting used to it a bit, sending Espérance’s “younger brothers” on errands and such, but I still have a tendency to prefer to do something myself rather than to ask someone else to do it for me. About the time I’ll get the hang of it I’ll move back to the US and get blank stares from insolent little American children who are not used to being told what to do!

Congo Culture Day 1

I’m sorry to anyone out there who is actually still reading my blog…sorry for the inexcusable distance between posts and for the fact that all I have to talk about these days is the photos of my infant daughter.

In an act of blogging contrition, I bring you “Ten Days of Congo Culture.” The challenge to myself is to blog every day for the next week and a half and to share with you some interesting aspects of Congolese life. I don’t even think to write about many intriguing things because I forget that they are fascinating; they’ve become ordinary to me after having lived here for nearly 6 years!

Day 1 Mermaids
Congolese people believe in mermaids. Yes, the creatures that live in the sea. I’m not talking about something cute like Ariel, the Little Mermaid, however. These are spiritual beings, evil spirits that live in the water. From a Christian perspective, I would say they are demons. To Congolese people, even the Christian ones, mermaids are very much a reality.

It’s not as big of a deal here in Brazzaville, although there are spirits in the rivers; but in the port city Pointe Noire, it’s a very real and present danger. The spirits in the water beckon people and if you cede, you become enslaved to them. There are both physical dangers, such as drowning, and a spiritual danger of bondage and deception.

Some people are married to a water spirit. Every night, as if in your dreams, you go under the water and interact with the beings there. At first it may be like a choice to you, but after a while it’s an obligation. People in this situation must receive deliverance ministry to be set free.

There’s no point in telling a Congolese person that mermaids don’t exist. It would be like saying there’s no such thing as the wind. They will recount numerous stories of people they know who have been affected by this phenomenon.

In French the word is siren. An English dictionary definition of the word refers to classical mythology, sea nymphs who were part human and lured mariners to their destruction by their beautiful singing. I wonder why in our days we have Disneyfied the concept and turned them into creatures suitable for children to play with? With my Congo cultural influence, I’m not sure I’ll be able to let Maria enjoy The Little Mermaid as I once did.