Zangbeto

“We’re going where!” our driver asked, as I was explaining our destination on Sunday.  “They shoot at people in that village,” he went on.  We were on our way to Zanzoun, a village known throughout the south of Benin for its lawlessness.  We were going to visit a church that was made up of former thieves and hoodlums.  They have abandoned their life of thieving and fraud in order to follow the narrow road, in order to walk in the way of Christ.

How did this church come to be there?  And how did these brothers and sisters in Christ come to know Jesus?  It all begins with an act of love.

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Theophane at the Zanzoun congregation

The village of Zanzoun is know for two things: the predominant role of the “Zangbeto” and the frequent practice of fraudulently selling land.  The Zangbeto institution began many years ago to provide protection of property at night.  They maintained law and order.  If anyone was caught committing a crime, he had to pay a fine.  If he didn’t pay, he would be punished by the Zangbeto.  Over the years, these night watchmen have become the very thieves they were supposed to stop.  They became a force in the community that no one dared to challenge.  The Zangbeto come out in their grass costumes sort of like huge grass skirts that cover them from head to foot, sometimes with horns at the top.  Nowadays, they can even come out in the daytime.  They are accompanied by musicians tapping on their rhythm instruments and followed by laughing, curious children who keep a prudent distance.

In the village of Zanzoun, a group of people has perfected the art of selling land that doesn’t belong to them.  They will bring in an unsuspecting buyer, show him the land, take him to a fake office where he will be given a fake deed to the land in exchange for his very real money.  By the time he figures out that he has bought a useless piece of paper, he can no longer find the people who sold it to him.

One day, some of the key figures of this group went to see some people in a another town, Porto-Novo.  Porto-Novians had come to Zanzoun to share the gospel through an evangelisation effort.  The effort had not been very successful.  Now the people from Zanzoun went to see the evangelists in order to sell them some land.  The chief spokesperson for the group from Zanzoun explained that his father was seriously ill and in the hospital.  He needed to sell some land to pay for his father’s medical bills.  Did the Christian brothers want to buy land?  The Christians  from Porto-Novo responded that they did not want to buy any land.  “However,” they continued, “if you can show us where your father is staying we will go and pray for him.  Then if there are any prescriptions, we would be happy to buy his medications.  We will also help to pay his hospital fees.”

Now, of course, there was no ill father in the hospital, nor were there any hospital bills waiting to be paid.  But the spokesperson from the group was overwhelmed.  How could these brothers offer to pay for his father’s medical bills without getting anything in return?  Perhaps there was something to this gospel message after all.  He was prepared to listen this time.  He decided after listening to their message to give his life to Christ.

After he made the decision for Christ, however, there was a backlash.  The other members of the village were not at all in favor of losing one of their chief actors in their land fraud schemes.  Not only that, but the young man was also a Zangbeto.  He was the brain behind many of their activities.  He could not leave them without a fight.  Even his own father turned against him.  At one point, after he was no longer part of their activities, the gang accused him of land fraud and he went to jail for a number of months.  None of these forms of persecution made him turn his back.  He had decided to follow Jesus.

On Sunday morning, I joined in the small church’s worship.  As I was preaching from Psalm 73 about how people follow after the wicked, a Zangbeto came down the path that passes in front of the church.  Some of the children ran out of the church to watch and follow after the straw-clad figure and his entourage.  “There,” I said, “people follow after the wicked in ignorance, not knowing what lies ahead.”  But for me it is a good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, to tell of all his works.  Everyone smiled; they knew what I was talking about.

Village children upon our arrival

Village children upon our arrival

Third Culture Kids

It is the beginning of 2009 and this year will be one of major transition for us.  After 10 years overseas, our family will be returning for a year in North America.  We will leave Benin which has been our home since February 2000 and move to the USA, a foreign country to our children.  Afterward we hope to return to West Africa but to another assignment.

Why make this move?  There are no finished tasks, no fall-outs, no instant convictions that this was the way things should be.  Rather, it was a slow coming to a decision as many factors guided us in this direction.  One of the reasons for going to North America for an extended period is the knowledge that our children are growing up overseas instead of living in the culture in which they will most likely settle some day.  Our hope is that an extended period in North America now will make it easier for them to adjust later on when they return as young adults.

Jeremiah and Deborah are part of a small but significant minority of children know as “Third culture kids” or TCK’s.  TCK’s are children whose parents are from a different culture/country than the one in which they live.  Included in this group are the children of missionaries, embassy, state department/foreign service, or military personnel, and of parents who work overseas for transnational corporations or NGO’s, etc.  What is distinct about TCK’s is that they do not share the culture of their parents.  They often don’t feel “at home” in their parents’ home country.  At the same time, they do not necessarily fit in in the culture/country in which they are growing up because they are being raised by their parents who are from a different culture.

The characteristics of TCK’s are many.  They are “homeless” in that they don’t feel rooted or belong anywhere and yet they can be at home anywhere.  They are often “awkward” in that they don’t fit into the culture in which they live (whether that be in their partents’ country or in the country where they grew up).  At the same time, they are able to operate as world citizens, able to adapt to many different environments.

The advantages for TCK’s are that they often speak more than one language and have a broader outlook on the world.  They are exposed to people from many different countries and so are less intimidated by “difference.”  They understand world issues such as poverty or differing world views because they have seen them firsthand.  They have a better sense of world geography (or at least a different sense!)

The disadvantages for TCK’s are: the rootedlessness and feeling out of place everywhere that leads to a longing to find home.  As well, the transience of their lifestyle and the movement of people in and out of their lives make it difficult for some TCK’s to form lasting relationships.

In practical terms, how does this look through the eyes of Deborah or Jeremiah?  In November we were going to an American Thanksgiving dinner.  The children asked what would be on the menu.  I explained that there would be turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing…  “What is stuffing?”  Jeremiah asked.  That reminds me of a similar question a number of years ago now, as we were going through a breakfast buffet:  “What is cereal?”  Our children know many foods:  pounded yam, bean cakes, “yovo doko”, “aloko”, but they don’t know cereal, stuffing, or pumpkin pie!  They know were Dassa, Ouagadougou and Accra are, but couldn’t name 50 American states or 10 Canadian provinces.  Along with George Bush and Obama, they know Dr. Boni Yayi, President of Benin, as head of state.  (I’m not sure they have a clue as to who is the head of state of Canada – if Canada even has a government right now!) At school they learn how to use currency: CFA (that we use in Benin), euros (for Deborah who goes to the French school.)  and the British pound (for Jeremiah who goes to an English school.)  They also understand dollars – Canadian and American.  Some of their knowledge would be extraneous in a North American context.

One day the children were watching the animated film “Pocohontas”.  At one point the European settlers and the North American natives are getting ready to go to war against each other.  Each side begins to sing a song: “Savages, savages, barely even human; they are different from us and so they must be evil; now let us sound the drums of war.”  Jeremiah asked why they were saying this about one another and I explained that people are often afraid of people who are different from themselves.  Jeremiah who is exposed to people from every continent at his school found this hard to understand.  The greatest blessing of being a TCK is perhaps this: being different, it becomes easier to accept and appreciate people who are different from us.  Everyone is a potential friend.

Praise and Prayer items:

  1. Praise God for a wonderful family Christmas, made extra special by the presence of Grandma Fray.  Praise God for her good health and her ability to adapt to our lifestyle.
  2. Pray for our on-going ability to trust God to lead us as we make major changes in our lives this year.  Pray for clarity of direction as we anticipate where we might live, work and study and where our children might go to school.
  3. Pray for a good transition out of Benin as we sell household effects, say goodbyes and wind down ministry commitments.