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Alice F. Smith: Learning sincere gratitude in West Africa

Now that I'm retired and back home in my beloved West Virginia, my thoughts often journey to my second home in West Africa.  During the 36 years that I served as a missionary in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), my African friends taught me many things.  Among them is how to be thankful.

Côte d'Ivoire, a former colony of France, is inhabited by 60 plus different tribal groups.  I lived, worked, learned, laughed, and ministered in the midst of the Agni Djuablin, Koulango, Abron, and Lobi tribes.  It quickly became evident to me that they differed in how they expressed and demonstrated appreciation. 

For instance, when the Agni Djuablin, Koulango, and Abron have reason to be thankful, their response is usually immediate.  In appreciation for a lesson taught, a ride to the market, encouraging counsel, prayer, medication for a sick baby, etc., they immediately said "thank you." Then, usually within the same day, they would come to my home to express their appreciation.  Often, they came with a delegation of family members and neighbors.  They came to both witness and join in the expressed gratitude.  This practice taught me to say "thank you" when I was the recipient, as well as when another person was on the receiving end and to "rejoice with them that do rejoice." Romans 12:15

The Lobi people are more reserved, even shy, in their offering of gratitude.  Though it took awhile, I learned that the Lobis have a rather profound understanding of thankfulness.  At first, and when compared to others, their simple "thank you" seems rather inadequate.  But, just wait until you hear the rest of the story . . .

My first ministry assignment was at the Mission Hospital compound located in the northernmost corner of the country.  The medical compound was surrounded by the mud huts of the Lobi people.  When assistance was needed, our good neighbors came to the clinic, maternity ward, and hospital by foot or bicycle.  In emergencies at night, this wasn't always possible.  From a distant village, walking or transporting the patient on a bicycle was not an easy task.  So, someone was sent to ask the missionary doctor to come.  Along with his medical bag, kerosene lantern, and an African helper, the doctor would set out to find and help his patient.  His mode of transportation was a small Honda motorbike.

One night his patient was a young, pregnant Lobi woman.  Her baby was in a breech position and couldn't be delivered.  The doctor turned the baby, and mother and baby were saved.  Shy appreciation was expressed and the doctor was free to return to his bed.

Five years later, a Lobi man arrived at the hospital carrying a large branch of green bananas.  There were probably 25 bunches on the branch with a total of close to 250 bananas.  Since bananas don't grow in the north, everyone wondered where he had gotten them.  He politely asked to see the doctor . . . no, he wasn't sick . . . he wanted to thank

the doctor for what he had done for his pregnant wife "the other night."  A name was given and hospital files were checked and showed that the man was the husband of the woman in serious trouble with a breech birth on a night long ago.

A Lobi pastor gave this explanation.  For the Lobi, an immediate expression of gratitude is too easy, too convenient.  Not forgetting, remembering the deed done or the gift received for a long time, shows genuine gratitude.  When possible, the repeated "thank you" is to be accompanied by a gift . . . a gift not easily obtained.  Only the good Lord knows how this poor man managed to purchase and transport the bananas from the southern part of the country.  The Lobis have taught me to have an attitude of gratefulness and to "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits," Psalm 103:2, everyday, not just on Thanksgiving Day.  My friends now understand that my "thank you" card arriving one year late isn't negligence, it's "not forgetting."


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