Niger, where patience means more than waiting.

In a cross-cultural work, our expectations, our understanding and sometimes even our values must bend so they do not break completely. What happens when part of you is at the breaking point? Be creative and relieve the pressure somewhere – it may bring unexpected benefits.

In training for Peace Corps Niger, one of the first phrases they taught you was “sai hankuri” – a Hausa phrase that directly translates to “only patience”. Our trainers said we’d be told over and over to be patient, and they certainly said it frequently themselves. Having trouble learning Hausa? Sai hankuri. Constantly sick? Be patient. And don’t drink the water.

By the end of training everyone was sick: sick of being told to be patient. Once at post, we also heard it over and over, when the roof leaked, when the children were being a nuisance, or when work was going slowly. At first glance it appeared to be a way of stalling or of consoling us. In reality, I quickly learned, the concept of “sai hankuri” went very deep in Nigerien society.

That learning curve (there were many!) began as I realized that Nigeriens were saying it to each other, and as my Hausa improved I identified different levels of “hankuri”. First was “hankuri” as waiting. People said it to one another with a shrug, complaining about politics or poverty. In its context, this seemed to be a passive attitude, always saying that things would get better, and that only patience was needed.

Second, I noticed the idea of “hankuri” as acceptance. Farmers with low yields, students with few job prospects or women doing backbreaking work in the home used “sai hankuri” after talking about the challenges they faced – implying that they didn’t expect things to get better. To grin and bear it took only patience.

Third, I realized that “hankuri” was ultimately based on the Muslim belief that everything belonged to God. At my first village funeral I was surprised when everyone used “sai hankuri” to console the bereaved family. It was used together with “sai Allah”: Only God gets to have His way, and we mortals can have only patience.

These realizations were satisfying, but they did not make “sai hankuri” any more enjoyable when I heard it from someone who had just missed another meeting. Constant patience (and related to that, humility) was required to prevent my irritation over issues like this from turning to irrational anger. I resolved, for my own sanity, that I would begin to translate “sai hankuri” as “be patient AND persevere”, to adjust my goals to fit better with the pace of life in Niger, and to value staying for tea more than having a quick, productive conversation.

And as I resolved this to myself, I realized that just then I had peeled back the last layer. “Sai hankuri” does not just mean “only patience” – its meaning is far more complex and involves both patience AND perseverance. We accept the inevitability of politics, challenges and death, but we persevere through our lives with the dignity inherent in all humans. Translating “hankuri” as patience and perseverance helped me understand my colleagues and the context, and to be far more effective in the long run.

Note: Even though I finished my Peace Corps service, I’ll go ahead and say that the contents of this site are my own and do not reflect any position of the Peace Corps or the U. S. Government. Not that the U. S. Government wouldn’t benefit from learning a thing or two about patience from Nigeriens. 

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About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

One Response to Niger, where patience means more than waiting.

  1. Pingback: Sai Hankuri: Key 1000 – 5000 Keys to Infinite Places

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