My lesson in pets and potlucks

In Africa, cats and dogs live outside and hosts provide all the food and drink for parties.

Before arriving in America, I'd sensed that the ways of the African were different from those of the American. I, however, hadn't known how much different until I learned about pets and potlucks.

In West Africa where I grew up, cats and dogs belong outside. Dogs are used for protection or for hunting. They stay outside and ate refuse and leftover food. Likewise, cats are employed to keep the rats at bay. And when an animal dies, the custom is to put the carcass out for the hyenas and then get a replacement.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that here in the United States animals are, at the least, honorary family members.

I was similarly amazed about American potlucks. At parties in Africa, it is the host's responsibility (and privilege) to provide all the food for his guests - party crashers included. A host therefore takes great pride and pleasure ensuring that there is more than enough for all.

So I was shocked when I received my first invitation to a dinner party where I was expected to "bring something to share."

These cultural shocks first began in 1980 when I arrived in Florida to attend graduate school. When my roommate's Yorkshire terrier died, I was surprised to see her crying and further taken aback when she announced she would be "flying home to Pittsburgh for his funeral." I howled with laughter. "What's funny?" she asked. By this time, I was on the floor in stitches. She seemed sorely offended. But I had never heard of a funeral for an animal before.

But what really used to get to me was this American concept of "potlucks." Why can't Americans really host a party? Why must a guest pay for his own drink and bring his own dish? I decided to show them how it was done the African way.

It was my son's first birthday. By African tradition, it's my privilege to feed my guests. I bought crates of drinks. There were steaming pots of rice and stew with assorted meats, fish, and goat-head curry, as well as mounds of foofoo, pies, and a live band, to boot. During the party, I urged guests to "have more food, another drink." And as guests got ready to leave, I packaged food and drinks for them to take home.

It took that party for me to understand Americans.

As the Americans called to RSVP (Africans didn't bother; it's understood that where there's a party, they'll be there), they asked, "What can I bring to help out?" Ah, the light bulb went on. Is that what potlucks are all about, then? Helping out - not stinginess? Nevertheless, I declined those offers. Africans didn't offer to bring anything; it would've been an insult. I did, however, ask two girlfriends to arrive a day early to help out.

Furthermore, while the Americans arrived on time, the Africans observed the "African time" - four hours late - so that by the time the Africans arrived, the party was at once officially ending and just beginning.

Finally, although I made no requests of anyone to "bring a little something to share," in Africa, it is customary for guests to shower the host with money whenever he or she dances. This is the subtle way Africans help the host defray the huge cost of the party. That custom confounded my American guests as they watched dollar bills rain on my husband and me on the dance floor.

Then I could appreciate the differences between the two cultures. I've since attended American parties where fabulous food flowed freely, and I now gladly bring a dish to potlucks. More important, perhaps, I now understand that it's OK to be kinder to animals, especially in America where basic human needs are met.

Moreover, having lived in America for 26 years now, I've come to appreciate the innate generosity of Americans. I've witnessed their overwhelming response to victims of 9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and hurricane Katrina. I know that despite Oprah Winfrey's doting on her dogs as though they were her substitute children, she still channels a huge portion of her wealth toward charities, especially those that help South African children.

And so, without falling off my chair, I recently watched a parishioner cry over the demise of her Pekinese puppy; she'd paid $5,000 for a granite tombstone and burial in a pet cemetery. I've since overheard, without giggling, a professor narrate his visit to an animal psychologist with his bulimic Persian cat. I've even attended a gerbil's memorial service with five 5-year-olds and six serious looking parents. The neighbor had paid $750 in vet fees for the treatment, cremation, and spreading of the gerbil's ashes at sea.

Still, I'd send my last dollar back to Africa to feed starving, naked boys and girls before I spend my first dollar on Friskies or Puppy Chow.

May Akabogu-Collins teaches economics and is a freelance writer.

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