On my 22nd day in Cameroon, I happened to open a file with “Most helpful health tips for newcomers to Cameroon.” I had heard most of them before—the branch doesn’t wait three weeks before giving us this information, for obvious reasons, but the pdf concluded with a short poem that I thought would help my readers understand one element of living in Africa.
Wash your hands well
Filter your drinking water
Wash your raw veggies with Javel,
Wash your dishes with hot water
If you’re invited, or out somewhere
The raw veggies aren’t Javeled
The water isn’t filtered
You forgot your Purell
And the dishes are merely rinsed in cold water
Pray and thank God for your food (as you always do)
Eat or drink with appetite and thanksgiving
And trust God with your health
For there are worse things than the filth that may go into your stomach and pass out of your body
And an attitude of rejection which comes from the heart
Can do more harm to your relationships than the food to your body
Relationships are paramount in Africa and Latin America, in a way that they are not in my middle-class U.S. background. I spent a couple weeks in Mexico last summer, and very happily ate everything that was offered to me, as I was usually hungry and almost all of it was delicious. A thousand thanks go to my parents, who trained me from a young age to eat everything that was set before me! One evening, a Mexican colleague turned to me and said in Spanish “I like Megan. She is a very open person.” Pleased, but a little puzzled, since she had known me for less than a week, I asked her why she thought so. She replied that I ate everything that was given to me.
I have had a similar experience here. After a couple weeks of eating Cameroonian lunches at the school (we have the option to get Cameroonian food, cafeteria food, or bring food from home), a Cameroonian colleague commented “I can tell you are just loving our Cameroonian food!” Another colleague commented later that he was confident that I would eventually try carrying things on my head, a skill many Cameroonians learn from the time they are small. When I asked why he thought so, he said something about how I seemed open to the culture and trying new things. As the only examples of that are my poor attempts at using French in greetings and eating the food, I think it may be the simple act of eating that shows a willingness to experience and join the culture here.
Even in college, I had started to realize the importance of food in relationships. Food is community, and in a sense, food is love. People usually eat with their closest social network, and offering a cookie or some fruit can be a way to solidify a friendship. When we share our food with others, we show love and hospitality to them. By accepting others’ food, we show that we accept their love. In this way, what we eat reflects our obedience to the second greatest commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I have not yet been offered food of questionable cleanliness, or had occasion to eat with unwashed hands. I pray that when I do, I remember that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body, but the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ Please pray with me that our eating and drinking may be acceptable to God and our brothers and sisters around the world.