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Hospitality and the Culture of Encounter

By: Ludovic Lado

April 4, 2022

Cultural and Religious Dimensions of Encounter

In most cultures of the south of Chad where I live, hospitality remains a major dimension of the culture of encounter. The visitor is king, and this is expressed in various ways. One of my favorites is when the head of the family offers the gizzard of a chicken to a guest as part of a specially prepared meal. I have often enjoyed this experience as a guest of Chadian hosts.

In many cultures in West Africa, when a married woman kills a chicken to prepare a meal in her home, she must take special care of the gizzard (an internal organ considered a delicacy) because it automatically belongs to the head of the family. It is often the first thing the head of the household looks for in the chicken dish when it is served. If he doesn't find it, not only does he not eat the meal, but the wife will have to explain what happened to the gizzard. In some extreme cases she will be sent back to her parents in protest against what is perceived as a serious breach of her husband's authority.

The gizzard here symbolizes the authority of the husband in the household, and it is his right to eat it or to give it to whomever he chooses. In many parts of Chad, when a family receives a guest, a chicken is prepared for him as a dish of honor. During the meal, the head of the family first offers the gizzard to his guest to honor him. This mark of hospitality is of such symbolic importance that when the head of the family fails to give the gizzard to his guest (and this is rare), he feels unwelcome or even humiliated. All of this indicates the importance of the quality of hospitality in the culture of encounter in Chad.

In most cases the visitor is a close or remote relative. But it also happens that the guest may be a complete stranger. Of course, welcoming strangers is not without risks. There are cases of ill-intentioned guests who abuse the hospitality of their host. But despite these risks, hospitality remains a duty in most cultures in Chad. First, hospitality is perceived as good manners and contributes to one’s social reputation. Second, every visit (or visitor) is unique and could be a source of unexpected blessings. One can recall the biblical story of the widow of Zarephath's hospitality to Elijah, which was a source of blessings for her (1 Kings 17: 8-24). Or the story of the hospitality of Sarah and Abraham to the three visitors. Abraham “ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree" (Gen 18:6-8). Their hospitality is rewarded with a blessing.

Thus, sharing one's home and food with a guest is a celebration of hospitality. This celebration of the visitor contrasts with the fear of the stranger that we experience in the modern world today. This fear is exacerbated not only by the cult of national borders but also by the rapid diffusion of the culture of individualism. In a globalized world, African societies once marked by the primacy of the community over the individual are also becoming more and more individualistic (and less and less hospitable), especially in urban areas where we are witnessing a rapid erosion of the culture of hospitality. Although it is still possible in Chad today for someone to leave the village to come and stay for a few weeks with a relative in town without informing him or her in advance, younger generations of educated, urbanized, and westernized Chadians now find this type of hospitality increasingly constraining.

Besides, the last few decades in Chad have seen an exacerbation of interethnic conflicts and tensions. At stake here is competition for the control of political, economic, material, and natural resources. For example, conflicts between herders and farmers are recurrent. In search of food or water for their livestock in certain seasons, herders periodically migrate to agricultural areas where relations with host communities are often fraught with conflict over access to natural resources. These conflicts continue to fuel a culture of mistrust (in place of hospitality) between communities.

The prologue of the Gospel of John states that Jesus came to his own and his own did not welcome him (John 1:11). God became incarnate in Jesus Christ to visit human beings, and they rejected him. The culture of encounter is not without risks, the risk of not being welcomed. It always involves a leap in the unknown. But Jesus took the risk, the risk of being rejected or even killed. Many in our modern world of national borders are afraid to take this risk. It is therefore necessary to rediscover the spirituality of hospitality at the heart of many of our cultures and of the Gospel, which makes us see the visitor not as a threat but as a fellow human being to be hosted. If we can't offer him a gizzard over a meal, we can at least offer him a glass of water or simply a smile to let him know that he is welcome. For, at the end of the day, there is no stranger on earth. There is only the neighbor. Borders create strangers, but hospitality acknowledges and celebrates the neighbor.