Here’s an article I wrote back in 1989 after spending 3 years in Nigeria doing humanitarian work in a village called Eket:
“Wow! Imagine living like that!” I’ve thought many times as I’ve traveled and lived abroad. I was 17 years old the first time I lived overseas. I went to Germany as a foreign exchange student, and there I learned that individuals and families in other places lived differently than I did.
Life-styles were different, food was different, transportation was different, languages were different. I was a stranger in a strange place, and I wondered how to respond. A big part of me wanted to surround myself with familiar things which would make the differences feel farther away. But there was also a part of me that wanted to completely submerge myself in the new culture and absorb it. I suppose I found a happy medium, leaning sometimes more towards one culture, and sometimes more towards the other.
Most recently I have returned from spending two and a half years in West Africa, where I was sent to help with a research project.
As I lived among the Nigerian people, I thought, “Wow! Imagine living like that!” I often watched my neighbor, Violet, a 16-year-old Latter-day Saint. It was hard not to think about the life I lived at age 16. My life had been extremely extracurricular. I was a member of almost every high school club I could find time for, I was very involved in sports, I was a student-body officer, I sang in a choir, I attended early-morning seminary, and I fulfilled Church callings. My life was a whirlwind of activity—fun activity.
Violet’s life was very different. She was the oldest of five living children. Three younger family members had died in infancy. Her mother had married at age 14, and Violet was born a short time later.
Violet’s parents spent most of their time doing farm work. As the oldest child, Violet was expected to help with the work needed to sustain the family. Because of family needs and the expense of school fees, Violet was not able to attend the village primary school every year. Some years she had her turn; other years her brothers and sisters had their turn. Violet completed about four or five years of schooling, and she probably would not receive more, as she was at the age when most Nigerian girls are given in marriage.
The village area Violet and I lived in had no electricity or running water. The walls of her home were made of mud clay packed between bamboo poles. The roof was of palm thatch. A wall made of sticks and thatch separated her compound from mine. As I lived by and learned from Violet, I discovered a principle that has had a profound impact on my life. I call it my principle of Difference Relativity.
When I was first asked to go to Nigeria, I was under the impression that I would be going into the bush of Africa to save the dying children. My colleague and I arrived on the scene with our cases and boxes of supplies and comforts and equipment and stuff. And in our books and materials, we thought we had all the answers to the world’s problems. We were ready and willing to find and point out all of the problems of the Nigerian people so we could proceed to solve them.
It didn’t take us long to realize that we were the ones that needed help. We were the ones having a hard time surviving. We were the ones having a hard time coping with life in Nigeria, not the Nigerians. I began to realize that differences are relative. Slowly, as the months went by, I began to see that I was just as different from Violet as she was from me, and I discovered an equality in our differences.
The differences in our lives started first thing in the morning, every morning. My co-workers and I had access to generated power each morning for two hours, and during that time, we bustled and hustled to use our electric typewriters, our computer, and our copying machine to record collected data and to prepare materials for the coming work day.
While we were doing this, Violet and her brothers and sisters were making their way back from a small stream about a half mile away. Every morning, at first light, they went to collect water for their family’s daily needs. Much of West Africa is a tropical rain forest, and so during the wet season, the children don’t have to walk quite so far to collect water. Violet could powerfully hoist a ten-gallon container on her head and then gracefully carry it all the way home without spilling a drop. I could just as gracefully make an entry in my computerized journal describing that feat.
Several times in the week Violet and her brother went out into the bush with their machetes to collect firewood. They usually returned at dusk with large bundles of sticks and wood balanced on their heads. This wood was used for the cooking fire. And then Violet and her mother prepared their usual gari and soup, made almost entirely from ingredients grown in their compound and on their small farm. Violet and her mother knew what it meant to be self-sufficient. My limited experience in such survival skills was a result of a week spent at girls’ camp several years before. I had much to learn from Violet and her mother.
I loved to go over to Violet’s compound on Saturday evenings while her family was preparing for the Sabbath. The children took turns helping each other bathe, the older ones would pour the water while the younger ones lathered themselves with soap. Violet’s father prepared the iron by filling it with hot coals from the fire, and Violet would press the clean white shirts and their dresses and wrappers so they would look their best at church in the morning. Water for the sacrament was boiled and cooled. And by the light of a bush lantern, scriptures and lessons were studied and prepared.
The more I observed Violet, the more I saw the differences between us. But I gained perspective and understanding. I imagined how hard it might be for Violet to live in my home environment. I thought of all the wonderful things she would miss—the sunsets decorated by lacy palms, the quiet of night where the only interruptions are made by choirs of frogs singing and distant drums, the daily contact with family and extended family who lived in the surrounding village. I thought about Violet’s physical strength and her young, supple body and what might happen to it if she were introduced to junk food and lazy habits. I thought of her cooking skills and farming skills and her ability to care for her younger brothers and sisters, and wondered how much of that would be lost if she were transplanted into my home environment.
And most often, I wondered about our thoughts and our feelings about our heavenly home. Violet’s world was different from mine. Our differences were great—she did things I couldn’t do, and I did things she couldn’t do. But we did have one most important thing in common: we were both daughters of our Heavenly Father. And because we both knew that, our differences didn’t separate us; they drew us together, and we learned from each other and we shared with each other, and both of our lives became fuller. I am a better person because of Violet’s differences, because she shared them with me. And I hope Violet is a better person because of my differences.
Heavenly Father’s creations show that he delights in variety and in differences. I want to delight in the same. As I am home now, among my own people, I try hard to appreciate differences in people and in experiences, and I try hard to learn from them. As I do this, I find my abilities are increasing, my life is becoming fuller, and I am understanding more about the one thing I hold in common with every other person on this earth: I am a child of God.