Monday, August 23, 2010

The Art and Science of Gifting

To gift or not to gift. People here, like people everywhere, love gifts. They love to receive them, and when they give them it is a very serious gesture not to be taken lightly. Take the following interaction about gift giving:

1) Each day it is inevitable that someone (or ten someones) will say the word cadeau to me. Cadeau means gift in French. The conversation can include ‘hellos’ and ‘how are you’s before the word is said, but many times it is simply “Yovo, cadeau.” I would need to be a billionaire (in francs) to be able to afford to give gifts to everyone that asked. You may be thinking, “No no, maybe being a millionaire would be enough.” I thought the same thing until I tested the theory.

I bought some gum, meaning 50 pieces or so. Within a minute or so a child saw me carrying something and said, “Cadeau.” Note there is no question mark there. It is never really a question; it is more of an instruction. I replied, “Bien sur!” meaning of course. I gave the child a piece of gum. Within 10 seconds there were 7 other children and 3 adults wanting the same thing, and by the time I had given them all a piece of gum, many of them had switched hands for another, and the children even went as far to say that they had not gotten one yet. By this time there were an additional 10 people who had walked upon the scene or came to get whatever was being given when they saw the crowd. It is worthwhile to mention that this crowd was completely age and gender independent. Tiny children and elderly men and women were all interested in having a piece of gum. Needless to say, my bag of gum did not get anywhere near my house.

Before going on to the next example I would like to also mention that I currently cannot walk down that street without people asking for gum.

Here in Togo it is important to always say the right things. Sometimes the words themselves are more important than the meaning behind them or the intention before them. Take the following interaction about gift receiving:

2) It was lunchtime so I made myself a big plate of pasta with some bread. I was just finishing when a friend came by. I suggested we go for a walk and away we went. It wasn’t long before we came across a birthday party. It was twelve or so people dressed well and enjoying lunch together. One of the people I was familiar with and he beckoned me over. He had me introduce myself to the people there, and then I was invited to toast to the gentleman having the birthday. I am not a wine drinker by nature, but there is no harm in toasting to someone’s good health on their birthday.

By the time the toasting was complete chairs had been brought for me and my companion. We sat and enjoyed the conversation for a few minutes when we were presented with plates to take part in the food. The food consisted of a very spicy rice dish and a cold salad. I will not tell you what I did just yet, but think carefully about what you would do. I had just eaten a heavy lunch minutes before, I am not partial to spicy foods and I cannot have cold salads here because the water used to wash the food is not good for me to drink. Would you explain that you cannot eat the food? Would you explain that you had just eaten? Regardless, here is the correct answer, which I will admit I did not use because it simply did not occur to me: Accept the food. Accept all of it. Look it over, poke at it, mention that it is delicious and you are lucky to have it, and then proceed to explain that you are full and satisfied and don’t eat it. Yes, waste the food is the right answer in a country where there it not enough food to eat. I told you, the Togolese are serious about their gift-giving.

I do not yet have the knack of Togo, but I am learning!

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