If you read our blog post about how Bangui looks during the rainy season, it may not surprise you to hear that keeping our Ndara boutique squeaky clean is a challenge… for many reasons.
First, the boutique is a rectangle with only three sides. One long side is completely open to our lush garden. Second, what Bangui lacks in number of seasons - it only has two, the rainy one and the dry one - it makes up for it in intensity of the seasons.
During the dry season, our challenge is to keep the dust off the white walls, table cloths and products. We have to dust off our displays three times a day. During the rainy season our struggle is mud and mold. Anyone walking into the shop will carry a trail of mud in and the high humidity in the air combined with daily rains grows fantastic mold. So, our ceiling fans are turned on 24/7, and we regularly have to take certain products into the sunlight to prevent mold. Keeping something clean in a tropical climate is a whole affair of its own!
Third, in addition to fighting the weather, we also have to teach the Ndara artisans what customers expect for cleanliness when they walk into the boutique. The team that manages the boutique is also responsible for cleaning the boutique. Cultural differences between Ndara artisans and customers spice up this straightforward task!
The Ndara artisans have grass ceilings in their homes. When you have a ceiling made of grass, you don’t care about the cobwebs on it. (It can actually be good to have spiders eating any other insects that may be considering the grass roof for their home.) You also don’t see the dust against the grass. The boutique on the other hand, has an all-white ceiling and natural red, wood beams. It does not come naturally for the Ndara artisans to look up and check the boutique ceiling for cobwebs on the beams, but we know for a fact that customers notice the dusty cobwebs and when they do, the boutique becomes less appealing to shop in.
The Ndara artisans don’t have glass windows. Their windows are completely open to the outside during the day and a wooden shutter closes across each window at night. So, it took time for them to notice when there were visible streaks on the glass windows in the Ndara boutique, and a few more for them to remember that customers could look poorly on that.
The limits of our language shape the limits of our world. Language is our portal to meaning-making, connection, healing and learning. Not only spoken language, but also body language. We send signals and model our values through our actions. Both are important to Ndara sales, so we teach the basics of written language and the difference in body language to Ndara artisans.
One aspect of body language we work on with the artisans is eye contact. In most western countries, we teach children to look people in the eyes when they say hello. We teach that eye contact is a sign of respect and the beginning of a meaningful connection. In business trainings around the world they will teach sales personnel that eye contact with clients is crucial. The gaze has to be just right, not aggressive, but calm and steady, curious and kind.
In the Central African Republic, we teach children to lower their gaze when adults speak to them; it is disrespectful for children to look adults in the eye. This continues between adults; students will not look a teacher in the eye, employees will not look their boss in the eye. When conflict arises the most respectful thing to do is to stare at the ground. But imagine what a customer from the western world would think of a salesperson who stubbornly stares at the ground while the customer explains what they need?
It is genuinely hard for the Ndara artisans to look their clients in the eye, because this act is ingrained in them as disrespectful. Even now, after four years of selling their products to western customers, they struggle to meet the eyes of the customers. Not out of disrespect, but out of respect.It takes courage and determination to learn new ways of behaving. Luckily, it turns out that Ndara artisans are full of courage and determination!