The longer we stay among the Mengen people the less we can hide who we truly are. It is tough to be subjected to constant scrutiny and we are watched day and night all days of the week. Here are some of the things the Mengen people say and think about us.
– Will these white skins eat taro and how much do they eat? Taro is a very tough root vegetable and is not easy to swallow when cooked on the fire. They know very well what we eat, and ask each other whether we will ever be able to eat their food such as taro that’s baked in the ashes. That is actually how they will also measure the worth of a man, i.e. how much taro does he eat that’s baked in ashes. Furthermore they know if we eat their food or throw it away behind their backs, which is a terrible sin in their eyes, and they will never forget it if you do. They also measure the amounts of food we eat as that is an indication of how we accept their hospitality. They will often compare us white people with each other and say this one eats all his food, and that one does not, or this one eats taro but that one does not. Sometimes I will even come to other villages I have never been at and hear of people saying that they heard so and so eats taro and so and so does not.
– Something else that they often ask, is why are we so pale? For them the white, pale colour of our skins does not look good, and it actually looks as if we are sick. I am lucky that I have a darker colour skin and they sometimes call me a ‘mixed race’ but Marie on the other hand is white and thus not healthy, some would think. Many Mengen people believe we are spirits returned from the dead because of the colour of our skins.
– Another question they would ask is why are some white skins so fat and why do they try to lose weight? A constant point of discussion is our physical size and shape and they often speak of us as being fat. They actually admire us in this sense, and look at skinny people as being sick. Sometimes when they see a person who is not fat, they will ask me if he or she is sick. Other times in the good old days when I lost some weight and Marie did also they asked us if we are sick. They cannot understand how come we would like to lose weight.
– They often ask why we struggle to walk? They say that we are not strong and actually are lame, because we cannot walk on gravel, or in the bush without shoes, or we always fall down. And if we do, then we complain and limp along. They say I am young but walk like an old man, because I need a walking stick.
– Something that they discuss far more than our physical features are our characters. They have a nick name for us all that depicts something in our character; your nickname more than often points directly to the greatest flaw in your character and is often the way they perceive you as a person. For example
o ‘Gendeng’ – Is a bird that steals from other birds and would mean that you are stingy.
o ‘Taliliua Maro’ – Is a bird with a tail that bounces constantly from side to side. And would mean that you constantly change your mind and cannot be trusted.
o ‘Basale’ – Would mean to take your time and not know when to leave.
o ‘Merengi’ –Is a tall bird, but one that has spurts of diarrhea when chased around. So it would refer to cowards.
– Another question they would ask about us is does he have sense of humour? They use the phrase ‘para igu’ which means to pierce a person’s nose, which is the equivalent of our speaking of pulling a person’s leg. If you can do this well and with wisdom, then you will have a good name, and if you can also take it well, then you will even have a better name.
The best of all is that they have answers for all the above questions and they know us better than what we will ever know them. They can remind us of words, phrases and gestures we use that we are not even aware of. Sometimes I catch them imitating me or a co worker and then actually also imitating our favourite phrases, gestures, accents and even grammatical errors we make. It just struck me again that I am being watched and I need to be sure to become a picture of Christ inside this culture.
May God help us this year to become more a picture of Christ and that through all our differences and intricacies that people will be able to see Christ in us.
Lourens for the Mengen Church