Creating Something Together
Danielle Suits, Lincoln Park Zoo’s education administrative coordinator, recounts her experience serving as liaison to colleagues from the National Museum of Niger Boubou Hama during their visit to Chicago in April. The visit was part of the Museums and Community Collaborations Abroad (MCAA) program funded by the American Association of Museums and the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
I have traveled, lived and studied in Africa and consider myself understanding of, and comfortable with, many of the cultural differences between African nations and the United States. This past April, I was lucky enough to accompany our Nigerien colleagues during their 10-day visit to Chicago and provide a cultural bridge to ensure all participants had the most enjoyable experience possible. Along the way, I discovered my role as their visit liaison was about more than just getting them from one place to another.
My fellow educators and I tried to offer our zoo, city and time as gifts. As we guided our guests all over Chicago, visiting schools, museums, parks, restaurants, shops and theaters, I learned about their work, lives, interests, goals and many other cultural nuances. The experience bound us more closely together as collaborators and friends.
So did the minor speed bumps we encountered along the way: double-ordered calamari, Segway collisions and disastrous dismounts, interminable shopping trips, confusion about the direction of Mecca. All of which brought shared laughter and moments of truth about our mutual learning curve.
I met our Nigerien colleagues—Moumouni Yacouba, Bida Ali, Boubacar Hassane Oumarou and Niandou Kadi Seyni—on Thursday, April 19, in the lobby of their hotel just north of the zoo. I introduced myself and quickly exhausted my French skills while asking them what they felt like eating for dinner.
Soon after, we rendezvoused at Lincoln Park’s Francis W. Parker School, our partner school in the MCCA program. Students there have been communicating with students in Niger via Skype and learning about local and Nigerien wildlife. During the visit, we participated in a high-school–level French class, which gave the Nigeriens the chance to field questions without language-barrier interruptions. The students then presented research they’d completed as part of the intercontinental exchange. The morning concluded with a barbecue at the school, during which the Nigeriens spoke one-on-one with curious students.
Throughout the visit, we enjoyed meals at a wide variety of restaurants, including Italian, Moroccan, vegetarian, Mexican and American. What surprised me the most, though, was the utter joy I saw on their faces when we walked into a West African restaurant one night. They recognized the music first, then the food. Everyone glowed. Moumouni, a veterinarian at the National Museum of Niger, delightedly explained, “This is Africa!” as he danced next to our table.
During my own travels abroad, I’d always been reluctant to eat American food, preferring to dive into more adventurous, indigenous cuisine. I learned that night it’s never bad to indulge in familiar food in a foreign place.
I also learned, while sticking to our detailed itinerary, we’d not planned for long, impromptu shopping trips to pick up essentials and Chicago souvenirs. It quickly became obvious that shopping tactics differ radically between the U.S. and Niger. When I head into a store, I tend to go in with a list or have specific needs in mind, stay focused, grab what I need and leave. Our Nigerien counterparts knew for whom they were shopping, but were easily swayed on which items to buy during constant informal evaluations conducted with other shoppers. “Do you like this?” they’d ask while holding up an item for public inspection.
I must be honest: I initially found this frustrating due to the constraints of our schedule. We couldn’t seem to get in and out of any store in less than several hours. I had to step back to realize that even the way people shop can be culturally situated. This was yet another opportunity to gain interesting insight into Nigerien culture and community values.
Although the entire visit was a blast, our trip to the Briar Street Theatre to see Blue Man Group stands out. As we took our seats before the show, a quotation excerpted from an international diplomacy guide was projected onto the stage curtain:
“When meeting people from a foreign culture, offer a few gifts that reflect your interests as a gesture of friendship. Better yet, give things you’ve created yourself. Also, explore their interests and their culture. Ultimately, the best way to forge a lasting friendship is to create something together. Whether it’s a meal, an art project or a spontaneous dance party, when you create something with others, you build a connection that lasts a lifetime.”
Blue Man Group could not have picked a more relevant sentiment! Throughout the MCCA program, we have sought ways to learn from one another, finding both common strengths and challenges, and exchanging ideas on how our respective institutions can engage local students. During dinner after the show, we discussed ways to continue to “create something together” for the remainder of the visit and beyond the scope of the program. The quotation also inspired a spontaneous dance party.
On our last night together, over an Ethiopian family-style meal, Moumouni commented on how we were simultaneously sharing a meal and creating an experience that connected us. But it wasn’t just our small group to which he referred. One of the most unexpected benefits of the MCCA program is how that experience of cultural exchange impacts all members of an institution. It was exciting to see Lincoln Park Zoo staff and volunteers who weren’t centrally involved in the program delight in meeting our Nigerien partners and exchange professional knowledge. Of course, these connections provide so much more than knowledge. Ultimately, we’ve exchanged perspectives, culture and our hearts in the process.