I think that we have determined that if there is one thing that we want us to take away from our time here it would the Gambian view on hospitality. This view isn't unique to Gambia, but it's quite different from our cold climate culture view.
At home, for someone to come to a meal, we plan on them coming, then we make sure our house is clean and we make something that's not too expensive and can stretch a bit, but that is also tasty. We might bring out nice plates and silverware, or put a nice tablecloth on the table. No matter how we go about it, we usually prepare in some way, yet we still usually withhold the best, saving it for ourselves and our families.
Here in Gambia hospitality is much more relaxed and in many ways I would say it comes more from the heart. On any day, at any given time we could show up at one of our groups and if anyone was eating we would also be invited to eat. It would never cross their minds to think "well I only made enough for 5 and now there's 7 of us", rather, the thought process would be that it would be rude not to offer their food to us. In fact, food is one of the few things that they can offer us, so at times it can be offensive if we don't eat at least some of the food that we are offered. Also, it is always guaranteed that we will have plenty of fish is in our section of bowl, even if that means that others go with less, since we are the guests. In addition, whatever crop is in season we are usually offered and/or sent away with. Stools or chairs are made available for us to sit on, and in some cases the conversation then moves away from the flies.
While my parents were visiting, we headed out to Kiti and Tiu Jon had just finished sealing two new rooms with concrete. These are going to be where his sister is staying, but at that time they were still drying. He was so proud of these rooms that he invited all of us to sit on mats on the floor, chat with him, host our Bible study inside and even eat in the new rooms! This resulted in rice on the floor and then it needed to be swept, but I feel that this showed his true heart of hospitality. He wanted to give us the best that he had. He could have proudly showed us the room, then had us eat outside, but instead he welcomed us in to enjoy what he had worked so hard to construct.
I have to admit, I am not the best house keeper. While I enjoy cooking and preparing meals, cleaning is not my strong point. I find that both Elias and I are are fairly careless as we set things down, which leads to items piling up. I also have a hard time finding space for all of the odd items that we own. This results in me scurrying around as I try to make our apartment at least presentable for whoever is coming, or being embarrassed by by what I see as a mess, even if the other person doesn't notice. I feel like I'm rarely prepared for people to just show up, which is fairly common here in Gambia, and when they do I have trouble focusing on them rather than that cleaning that I should have done before this point. I also find myself being the person that says "but we don't have enough food for anyone else". In many ways, with our American cooking style this is true. We don't all eat out of one bowl until we are full, instead we have our own plates and we take our portion. Since there are only 2 of us currently and we only have a fridge that comes up to my hip, with a tiny freezer that doesn't usually freeze and electricity issues, I try to make small meals with little to no leftovers. I also can't store many extras for this same reason if they need to be kept cold. But, I have found that even with this cooking style, there is always enough to share. If that means taking less for ourselves and improvising later, then so be it. Not having enough to share is usually more of an excuse for not wanting to share our precious meat that we only get about twice a week rather than a reality.
As I think more about this, I'm reminded of the story in the Bible about Mary and Martha. Jesus came to visit and Mary sat at his feet and just listened to him speak, but Martha let herself get so distracted by making everything presentable for Jesus, she missed out the true meaning of hospitality. Mary was the better hostess because she gave her guest her time and attention, Martha on the other hand wanted to please her guest so much that she end up neglecting him instead. I feel like the Gambians are Mary. Guests arrive, they are welcomed in and given what's available at that time. They are attended to and given the time of their hosts. We however tend to more like Martha. We spend time preparing for guests, but when they arrive we hardly enjoy them because we are distracted by all we need to do, and we deprive them of the best gift, our time and attention. This is not to say we are all like this, or that we always do this, but as a culture in general we are much more work oriented than relationship oriented.
As I go home I want to take Mary's spirit of hospitality that I have found here with me. I would love to lean to keep a tidier home so that I'm prepared for guests, but even when I'm not prepared I want my attention to be focused on them and not on what I should have been doing to prepare for their arrival. I want to give the best of what I have available and put relationship first. Elias and I have both come to value this and we pray that we can keep this desire as we step back into a time and work oriented culture.