The Spiritual Discipline of Supplication

Today's UPI Column

So There I was...

Trying to talk to Annabelle. I had known Annabelle for about fifteen minutes. It was my first day, on my first visit out of the USA, to the least developed country in Africa, Burundi. Annabelle was to be my household helper. I knew this because I was dropped off to an empty house, and introduced to her.

My host knew that I had no Kirundi, Annabelle’s first language, and he believed that she had none of mine. I was trying to learn Kiswahili, and though my helper had not had much school, she had plenty of Kiswahili, so my host commanded her to speak nothing else to me. Then he left.

I was to run my own household. Annabelle had no clue what I wanted, but understood the basics of what I needed. I needed to know when she would be coming, what services she would provide, and we needed to negotiate her pay. Our attempts to communicate in Kiswahili lasted about fifteen minutes until we were both good and frustrated, and fell into our native tongues, and a bit of prayer. We discovered that we both had some French vocabulary and that Annabelle had a lot more English than she advertised. We started communicating in a badly mixed mess of four languages.

Annabelle’s best sentence was
“Give money moi” She said it with authority almost a demanding tone.
I had “kwa nini? (Why in Kiswhaili.)
“Chakula, market” she said. (Food – Market)
OK, money to go to the market to buy food.
`We worked on the currency and she left me.

After she left I felt flustered. She seemed awfully bossy. I wondered if we were going to get along. It was only later that I found out an important fact. Kirundi has no word for “please”, so Annabelle had no concept of “please,” no way to ask nicely, no word to indicate supplication. She had the simple imperative, and nothing else. I started to think about a society with no way to implore. The educated classes had picked up the French “Sil vou plait”, if you please, but Annabelle did not observe the French niceties.

At that point I needed Annabelle a lot more than she needed me. She did need a job. She was twenty-one years old, and functionally an orphan taking care of seven younger siblings. She lived in the Ghetto of Kamenge, and at that time, they were being chased out of their house at gunpoint three or four times a month. She was resilient, and resourceful, but a little cash was going to help.

I was also in need. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no way to feed myself. I didn’t know what water was safe. Some of the insects in my house were harmless and a few turned out to be deadly, I didn’t know one from the other. I didn’t know how to get a taxi. I didn’t know if it was safe to walk anywhere. I didn’t know what to do when the electricity company came around and threatened to turn me off, unless I paid them off. Annabelle was my key.

I was relieved to see her arrive the next morning with coffee, pineapple and bread. I knew I needed her help and I knew I needed to learn to communicate with her. So I started learning, and by example teaching, the art and Spiritual Discipline of Supplication.

“Annabelle, please, sil vou plait, tell me…” and we started around the house naming things. After things, we started working on behaviors, and then higher concepts. She asked me questions. We still mixed four languages.

You cannot know how important supplication is until you recognize your need. I think everybody should be dropped on the equivalent of another planet once or twice to make this real. Another way to learn this is to develop a nice raging addiction and let it mess up your life. Then you get to do the First Step that every recovering alcoholic knows so well – “I came to realize that my life was unmanageable.” Recognition that you cannot make it on your own is a foundation for spiritual growth.

Americans are just so blessedly arrogant about this. We think we can manage anything, our lives, our country – your country. And it is just so obvious to everyone else that we are not so good at it. Michael Moore is talking to us about our broken Health Care system. But we like the illusion that we are in control. We don’t like letting go of that illusion. What we have now is a Medusa-headed private system. We might trade that in for a lumbering but simpler single payer system and that just might work. But the insurance industry Medusa tells us that we have all the choices and we shouldn’t give that up – and they make obscene profits while we pretend we are in control. We won’t likely change that opinion until things get worse for most of us.

Spiritually, a lot of people have to hit bottom before they recognize that they have a need for a God. There are a lot more atheists in the middle and upper classes than among the poor. The poor and the sick, will tell you that they know they need help.

After you recognize you need, you have to ask for help. Stop and ask for directions? How good are we at that? Not very. Let somebody else see our unmanageability, our need, and our weakness? Not our long suit – by a long shot. Welcome to Step Two – “I came to believe that a force greater than myself could help.” You have to believe help is possible. You have to recognize it. You have to approach it – willing to be seen for what you are, and where you are.

Then you have to actually accept the help that comes your way. Step Three – “I made a decision to turn my will over to that power.” This means that you ask, and you lay down your personal preferences and take the help that is given, not necessarily the help you asked for, or the help you thought you needed. They call this taking Life on Life’s terms. Third Step

You can sum this process up thusly: “Oh Crap! Oh Look! Oh Help! OK.”

This is actually an optional Spiritual Discipline. God will love you just as much if you never ask for help, or fail to recognize and accept the help that comes your way. But ignoring this discipline may shorten your life exceedingly. And I guarantee it will impoverish you life tremendously.

I learned to ask Annabelle for many things. I didn’t worry about looking like a Muzungu Ujinga – (stupid white person) – because I was a Muzungu Ujinga. And she learned to take risks and ask me for things. She learned to ask for what she really needed.

“Paygy”(that’s how she said my name)
“Payge – pleeze - mange chakula moi? ” (Peggy, please can I eat food?)
“Annabelle – vou mange today, Samedi?) (Have you eaten today, Friday?)
“Oya” (no)
“Ayya! Annabelle, vou mange chakula niumbani moi, ego?”
(You eat food here at my house, yes?)
“Oya, never.” (no, never)

I discovered that this girl came hungry to my house each morning and never touched a bite for the six to eight hours she was there, as she cooked three meals for me, because she believed that eating my food was forbidden. That was how it had been before. Thieves lose their jobs. I had no clue. I was sick.

“Annabelle! – Chakula Moi – Chakula Vou!” I said it with authority.
(my food is your food)

The next day my host came in and found Annabelle sitting at my table having her breakfast with me, I had gotten up for the coffee pot and topped off both our cups, and offered him some. He looked surprised.

“Why are you serving Annabelle?”
“Why not?”

Thank you for another wonderful story. Your summation of the process, “Oh Crap! Oh Look! Oh Help! OK.” Reminded me of something someone once told me. "There are only three prayers. They are Help, Thanks, and Wow."
Did the host know that Annabelle worked all day without food?
Did he learn anything about, compassion, equality, justice?
Hi Jami !

Well, the host referred to in the story is our good friend, and my beloved brother in the Lord and Quaker par excellance, Niyonzima David. So yes, he knows quite a bit about compassion, equality and justice.

But some cultural and historical background will put this in perspective.

1- Africans think it is perfectly normal to go eight hours without food. Most adults, esp. men will take nothing other than tea at breakfast and not eat until two pm. when they eat a huge meal, for the poorer classes this is the only meal of the day. Only babies, the elderly and the sick eat at 4-6 hour intervals. And Mazungu (white people) as we are a pitiful combination of feeble and frail.

2- I was a Newbie - this was my first trip, and I knew nothing. For instance I did not know that silence equals saying no. I should have told Annabelle what she was invited to eat on her first day. She took my silence(stupidity) on the subject, to be forbidding eating.

3- Because I negotiated with annabelle myself, it turned out that I was paying her way too much, twice what a pastor in Burundi Yearly Meeting was paid. Niyonzima had been told this by me, and had no reason to believe that She was doing without food at home.

4- unbeknownst to us both, the shooting war with the rebels in Annabelle's neighborhood meant that Annabelle's house had been robbed at gunpoint three times in a month. Annabelle had not complained about this. Burundians are stoic to an extreme.

5- Annabelle was working seven to two and if she had an evening meal, she would have never asked me to eat at work. But her evening meal had been disrupted by gunfire the night before she asked me.

6- when David found out - he helped me get Annabelle and her seven siblings (all orphans) to a safer place. He was glad that I was feeding her. He just thought it was funny to see her sitting at my table drinking coffee. Apparently no Quaker visitor had ever done this before. The next day he came in and she was playing with my laptop. THAT caused a real belley laugh and the comment "peggy, you are one crazy muzungu!"

7- David was not supposed to be my liason, I was supposed to have someone from Burundi YM to do that. Annabelle was supposed to be hired by and answering to BYM. Due to some amazing and untellable circumstances, I had no help from BYM though I was officially their guest. Niyonzima was my friend, and a good thing too.

The stories I don't tell are ever so much more interesting than the ones I do tell.

Yes, that was a more complete story and explanation of the cultural background.
It sounds like Divine intervention to have had David find out about Annabelle and her family's situation in that series of events.
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