For several years I have been mentoring German volunteers who come to our area for a year of service for a Christian child-aid organization. So every year I get to introduce a new group of young people to the Beninese culture.
The newest group of volunteers had been here for just a few months when one of the girls came to me very upset. Almost in tears, she said, “They told me I got fat! How can they insult me like that?” Clearly, gaining weight is a sensitive topic for a young girl from Germany. However, in Benin, this was not an insult. After I had finished laughing, I assured the girl that the person had by no means meant to offend her, but that he actually was paying her a compliment. In this country, where many people are malnourished and sick, getting fat means that someone is in good health and is wealthy enough to eat well. She may not have gained any weight at all, but the person wanted to congratulate her, and probably even more her host family for feeding her and taking care of her.
After my explanation, the girl was able to see the humor in her misunderstanding.
Oh, the joys and challenges of living in a different culture!