There are many social rules between men and women in Niger. For example, a woman walks behind her husband, not with him. Also, a woman refers to her husband as maigida (owner of the house) and never by name.
Being an outsider in that early-learning phase, I feel as though I am constantly breaking rules I do not even know. It is hard to be a professional woman in a place where most women cannot read and are married by the age of twenty.
Yet being an outsider also means that I fall into a classification all my own. I am allowed liberties that would never be considered appropriate for a Nigerien woman—and sometimes I do not even realize that what I am doing or saying is anti-cultural. There are times, however, that being an outsider offers a get-out-of-cultural-mishaps-free (or mostly-free) card. Today was a good example.
A patient whom I shall call A____ has been in the hospital since I arrived. It has been a long road, and he has further to go still. It has been a week since he has been well enough or willing to walk, and he is just getting weaker as the days go by. Today I finally had enough and refused to leave his room until he at least tried to walk.
Reluctantly, he agreed.
The last time he “walked” with crutches, it took three-and-a-half people to get him down the hallway and back. The same men fell in line to help him today. I stood out front to coach or rather to pantomime (due to the language barrier!). Unlike the last time, however, once they got him up standing, they all let go…at the same time.
He made it three hops from the bed and stood right in front of me.
“Akjas oiw viag toiavlja,” he said.
“Oh no! You have to make it back to your bed!”
“Jgiwvi oiv3wv laviwbo,” he answered.
“Uh-uh, you will not fall here! Not on my watch!”
“JGIWVI OIV3WV LAVIWBO!” he repeated, this time more emphatically.
“No!! YOU NEED TO GET BACK TO THE BED. DO NOT QUIT ON ME NOW! A quick turn, then three hops back! That’s it. You can do it.”
Then the unimaginable happened. He leaned forward, looking exhausted and defeated, and rested his forehead on my shoulder.
I stood there, unsure of what to do. No one in the room said a word. They just stared at me as if I had just crossed a major cultural boundary. The stares then turned to ones of curiosity for what I was going to do next.
I frankly had no idea! Those seconds felt like cross-cultural hours.
Finally, I did what any occupational therapist would do—ballroom dancing! Okay, not quite, but it is probably the closest I am going to get to ballroom dancing in Niger. I put one hand on his waist to guide his lower body and another to the side of his rib cage to guide his upper body. He looked up at me, helpless.
“Okay, this is what we are going to do…you can do this…we are going to turn and walk back to your bed…and then you are going to sit up for an hour.”
My hands went from him to his crutches and back again with each step, and as his village looked on, A____ and I “waltzed” our way back to his hospital bed.
When it came time to sit, he pulled a flop and ended up on the edge of the bed. There was no way he was going to be able to sit like that for another hour. However, he was too weak (and probably irritated with me), and he could not (or would not) scoot back on the bed.
Since my gestures and body language were failing to communicate what he needed to do next, I decided to just say it all in French and move in for the kill. Besides, at that point everybody was already astonished…could I really make it any worse?!?
I stood in front of him, my knee to his; I positioned my hands, and told him on the count of trois he was to stand just a little, lean forward, and then sit back as far as possible. Somehow, it worked.
Maybe now he will be willing to give the walker another go.