Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Ambiguous Gift


God knows I don’t tell lies on my blog. But I certainly must edit what I write. I can’t tell you everything that happens in the Mission, because much of it is confidential and concerns people’s private matters.

But I have my share of humorous stories that have to do with cultural differences and misunderstandings. And I also have things happen which are not so funny, which have to do with the realities of mission service in a foreign country. Most of those I choose not to share. Instead, you get the “Wow, the Mission is going great!” stories.

Perhaps I can share with you the story of what happened this past week (carefully edited, of course!) to give you a taste of one such encounter, which was personally frustrating, but actually quite humorous in retrospect.

A couple of weeks ago, on this blog, I wrote a story about the importance of land. And I mentioned that a member of our church in Monatele had offered a piece of land to the Mission. As a “gift.”

I’m not so naïve to suppose that the gift had no strings attached. Several of the pastors told me that, upon receiving the land, I simply needed to feed the family, to throw a feast in honor of the occasion. But this would still be small potatoes compared to the typical cost of purchasing a plot of land.

So I asked Pastor Simeon: “How much is this going to cost the Mission?” He jotted down some figures on a piece of paper … “Well, you need to spend about 100,000 cfa ($200) on food, and then the owner mentioned that he’d like a new cell phone ($130), and you’re going to need to give him some cash …”

“But I thought this was a gift,” I said, the first of many times I was to utter those words in the following week.

“Yes, but you need to seal the deal,” he said. “This makes it official. This is a kind of token of appreciation. It would take a lot more money to actually buy land like this.”

I agreed. So last Monday, I loaded up the car with rice, beef, oil, salt, vegetables, and other small items, including a bottle of rum, which is a traditional custom for transactions of this nature. I bought a new cellphone, and slipped some cash into an envelope. Then Simeon and I headed to Monatele, ready to “seal the deal.”

We presented the items to the entire family, which had gathered in the family house in Monatele. However, rather than give the items to the owner of the land, I had to present them to the senior elder of the family, an old man with glasses who looked at our gifts, then said, “This isn’t enough. I have a list here of the things we require, and you have not given us everything on the list.”
What I didn’t realize is that making a gift of land is similar to giving a woman for marriage. The family turns over a list of required items as dowry, and the groom must come up with the items before he is allowed to take his bride home.

When Simeon asked for the list, we discovered that we still lacked three cases of beer, chicken, a box of cigarettes, a box of matches … and a pig.

I told Simeon that this was a problem … what self-respecting Methodist would hand over smokes and alcohol for church property? And where the heck was I going to get a pig?

To make matters worse, a fight broke out within the family members. Turns out the owner of the land has three wives, and one of the wives was absolutely furious that he was giving their land away. After a lot of screaming and shouting, she presented me with a Letter of Opposition to the whole proceedings.

By the end of the afternoon, Simeon and I had managed to find the remaining items (or close-enough substitutes), and the family had quieted down. We left feeling like we had … well, “sealed the deal.” However, we still had to manage the business of making everything legal.

On Wednesday, we returned to Monatele, this time to visit the sub-Divisional Officer, who has the responsibility of approving and monitoring land sales. I knew going in that he would also require a small payment for his assistance, but this was necessary so that we could procure a land deed.

One problem – he refuses to approve the deal until the rest of the family signs a paper indicating that they approve of the man’s gift. And, of course, that is not likely to happen. Unless … we pay more to the family … in which case we are buying the land after all.

That’s something I’m trying desperately not to do, especially because it’s not in my budget!

So we left Monatele without a resolution to the problem. The owner returned home to try to secure signatures from everyone, and we returned to Yaounde to wait, and pray. But everything is still up in the air.

Will the Mission get the land? Will the owner of the land work out the tension between his three wives? Will I pull all my hair out before I turn forty? Tune in next week for the next gripping episode of … “As the Mission Turns.”