Cultural Differences.

I hear my name across the noise of the market. “Verena! Verina! Harrrrt!” I turn around to find Gladys briskly walking toward me with her grandchild in tow. The woman smiles & takes my hand in greeting, with much enthusiasm. This woman’s joy is contagious & I laugh as I exchange the Lubwisi words of welcome. “Where are you going?” she asks, brows knotted in concentration like I am about to say something of great significance. “I was walking to the market to see a friend. But she is not there.” She nods slowly, thinking. “You come with me. To my house.” No time to respond. She turns & leads the way through the throng of people dragging her grandchild by the hand & me stumbling to keep up. For an older woman, she can move!

We march through the market busy with Saturday’s specials. Venders, shoppers, & a drunk guy proposing (my bride price is too high for you, dude). I pass the bodas waiting for clientele, pass Fred Brown’s shop where Alisha buys coke zero (a challenge we gave Fred when he told us he could find anything for his shop), cross the road lined with clothes for sale laid out on blue tarps (the dust is free of charge), notice the open gates of the hospital to my right, & run a few steps to catch up when I spy Gladys’s head bobbing in the crowd. She turns around to make sure I am still following. I smile like I was there all along. Stopping abruptly, she makes a quick left & ducks under a metal doorway into what appears to be a small alleyway. By this point I’m baffled & laughing in my head. When I don’t follow right away, the woman pops her head back out & eagerly waves for me to follow. Stepping through the opening, I find myself behind the shops that line the road in a small compound. Rooms join together to form a square, each door opening to the center. Half-naked children stop their play to bluntly stare at the new arrival. Women stir their pots of rice for lunch. Men raise their eyebrows in acknowledgment of my presence. Gladys leads me to her room in the compound she rents for her 3 children & grandchild. The space is equal to half of a small dorm room or maybe a medium size bathroom. Two mattresses cover the entire dirt floor barely seen under clothes, shoes, a chair, alarm clock, & paper books piled to heights of doubtful stability. She clears a space for me to sit on a mattress then disappears out the door. I cautiously sit down, keeping an eye on a pile threatening to fall on me. Twenty minutes later, my host returns with a soda & biscuits she probably just ran down to the store to buy. I marvel at her generosity, thank her for her excellent hosting, & sit silently appalled that she spent money on me when she has 5 mouths to feed. Even with 2 months of living in this culture, I still don’t understand their ways.

David Maranz’s in his book African Friends and Money Matters provides a thorough explanation & comparison of the differences between African & western culture. Filled with his own experiences, Maranz explains the dynamics of business, solidarity, finances, & relationships. I have found the book a wealth of resource that sheds some light on the customs & ways of Africa.

Africans & Westerners mix about as well as oil & vinegar. They can live in the same land, bumping into each other in the market place or roadside, but rarely is there an interpreter that can translate the diverse value systems & customs.

Africans create a network of interdependency with their relationships. If you are lacking a tool, run next door to your neighbor to borrow his. If you need a cup of sugar, ask your cousin across the road. She has 2 cups & only needs 1. If you need 50,000 shillings for a boda repair, visit your richest friends, indirectly telling them of your sorrows, & they will each provide a small sum to ease your woes. The more friends, the better off you are. The people are giving & open with their resources. It is rude to have excess & not share.

An ocean away with beliefs just as wide, Westerners base their relationships not off needs but emotions. While their number of friends may be smaller, the connections emotionally & psychologically are stronger with the few they have. A visit from a friend comes from care & concern for that person. If a Westerner needs financial help, they go to professional assistance specific to the need. A cup of sugar can be spared for a neighbor, but only because 5 more cups sit on the shelf for future use.

Because of these differences, Westerners living in Africa feel manipulated & drained when constantly asked for resources. The African sees the white man as a hoarder. He has so much food in his house! Enough food for a week! He must have money; look at his many clothes! While the white man sees the African working, but never having enough money. Why can’t he save? He knows he will have to pay for school fees in a month! The African goes to the white man for help because he sees his wealth, but the mizungu often feels like a human atm. Instead of a debit card there is a knock, a long conversation, beating around the bush, frustration, a direct question, a wallet emerged, & the equivalent of $30 walks off never to be seen again.

Neither system is wrong. One works in one context, while the other succeeds just as well in a different environment. History explains the growth of the 2 structures. Wars, famines, floods, & other hardships forced the African to depend upon his friends & neighbors to survive. Scarce food & human resources caused the people to spread what wealth there was to keep each one alive. While in the West, plentiful amounts of resources allowed a population to increase & prosper. When the land decreased, capital increased to manufacture equipment needed to continue production. Through the course of time, the practices seen today shaped into the ways of a continent. Now as poverty takes over, the missionary finds a hard time trying to teach the positive principles of the Western world (working, saving, good hygiene) through the customs & systems of the African.

As an intern, I witness more than experience the struggle between missionary & African over financial issues. Hospitality, however, is a cultural difference I experience weekly. To welcome guests whether invited or not, an African will prepare food & drink. They may use up all of their food or spend their meager income on a soda & biscuit, but if the guest feels honored, then the sacrifice is worth it. On one of my first visits in a Ugandan home, the girl left us sitting in the waiting room for over an hour while she prepared rice, cow liver, & tea for us. When a visit is over, the Ugandan gives the guests a “push” on their journey by walking with them a part of the distance home. Our friend walked a half a mile before she felt satisfied that she had done her duty.

Where I come from in the South, the women of southern hospitality would cluck their tongues, shake their heads, & make comments on impracticality of these African ways. The thought of leaving guests to sit by themselves is a big no-no in the Southern Society’s book of rules! To appear unexpected at a door does not mean the owner of the house should prepare a feast. Why cook when a cup of sweet tea sufficiently welcomes the guest, who didn’t announce her visit anyways? Besides, lunch was only an hour ago. And sure, we give the guest a “push”… to her car in the driveway.

My inbred high southern society manners battle with the new African way I am adopting. Both grandmothers would fall over if they saw the way I eat my matoke & gnut sauce! But that is part of being a missionary. Learning amidst uncomfortable situations, adapting when necessary, & asking God for strength to not wrinkle your nose when the fish is served whole.

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5 thoughts on “Cultural Differences.

  1. Such rich and vivid colors u have chosen to paint a peephole in the door of a world away. I love hearing abouy your many adventures and discoveries during your time in Africa. Keep em comin’!

  2. Just read this outloud to Olivia and Maleesa at Memaws house. Your writing is spectacular, and I am loving learning from you. Thank you for letting us partake in your mission! My heart is there with you. 🙂

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