Same values but different

Talking to my very engaging acquaintance

In northern Ghana in July 2017, I met a man who was missing his right arm. He was very engaging to talk to so I dared ask him how he lost his arm. He told a horrific story of losing it to snakebite when he was a young boy. He began his tale by saying that he doesn’t know exactly how old he was when it happened because he never has known his exact age.

I have met a number of Africans that don’t know their exact age although that is getting rarer and rarer. The issue of age, in fact, shows how very different cultures can be. Although he doesn’t know his birth date he does know whether he is older or younger than everyone in his extended family and in his village. Even though his father doesn’t know his exact age both he and his father know whether his father is older than or younger than each of the father’s brothers, cousins and even neighbors. The same is true for his mother.

Almost every time an African mentions his aunts or uncles their relative age is specified, as in “my mothers older sister” or “my father’s younger brother”.

And even when none of them know what year they were born, they do know on what day of the week they each were born.

My acquaintance did not know his age, but that does not mean that his culture does not value knowing one’s age, quite the contrary. But rather it values knowing one’s age in a very different way than does my culture.

When people say that different cultures have different values, that’s true. But it is also true that many times they share very similar values but express them in wildly different ways.

Why, why, why?

In his excellent book about Ghanaian culture entitled Ghana in Retrospect, Peter Sarpong dedicates a chapter to Ghanaians’ belief in the supernatural. He tells an imaginary story of two schoolboys killed by a falling tree while walking to school. He notes that scientific Westerners would explain the event by noting that recent heavy rains had loosened the tree’s roots. He says that Ghanaians might accept that explanation all while seeking a supernatural explanation beyond it. They do that by repeatedly asking why. Why were the boys walking by the tree at the moment it fell? Why didn’t the tree fall earlier, or later? Why did the boys take that route to their school? Why were the boys walking together? Why didn’t they see it starting to fall and run away? Why did the heavy rains come? And so on.

If you keep asking why about an event, you will eventually come to the end of scientific explanations, at least the obvious ones. At that point, many Ghanaians will insert a supernatural explanation, says Sarpong. Perhaps a witch cast a spell at the behest of an enemy of the family.

The thing is, this is not as strange as it seems to Westerners. Let me illustrate.

On November 2, 2001 America Airlines flight 587 crashed in New York after encountering wake turbulence from the airplane in front of it. Crash investigators asked why. Early in the investigation, the vertical stabilizer (tail fin) was found some distance before the crash site, indicating that it broke off first and that caused the crash. So the investigators asked why it broke off. An examination showed that the attachments had broken. So the investigators asked why they broke. Further examination showed they were not corroded or weakened nor was the wake turbulence strong enough to shear them off. So they asked why there was such great force applied to the stabilizer. The black box revealed that the pilot had moved the rudder all the way back and forth quickly while the plane was at speed, resulting in stresses that far exceeded design limits, causing the attachments to fail and the vertical stabilizer to break off crashing the plane. But the investigators still asked why. Why did the pilot move the rudder so violently? They found that he learned it in his training, where instructors recommended it to counter wake turbulence. And so the investigation ended with changes in the training.

Even in as rigorous an endeavor as air crash investigation, it is important to keep asking why – to not settle for the first second or third explanation. It seems that the Ghanaian approach of asking why beyond the first natural explanation has good precedence. By the way, the crash investigators did not ask why the training was as it was. I wonder.

Also, if many pilots received the same training, why wasn’t there a crash sooner? Or why wasn’t there a non-fatal incident that revealed the flawed training? One that bent the attachments rather than shearing them off, for example. The crash investigation neither asked nor answered any of these why questions.

In light of these observations, I think that it is a mistake to simply write off Ghanaian beliefs by labeling them superstition. By admitting that their why questions have some rational basis, we keep ourselves from smug superiority and condescension; things that would severely limit the impact of our ministry. Besides, admitting that there is some rational basis does not imply that the beliefs are right, aligned with the Bible or helpful. On the other hand, it does admit that there are some questions beyond science, and that is an open door to the message of the Bible.

When a pear is not a pear

Dayle in the hospital in Ghana, with fresh coconut

When Dayle was hospitalized in Ghana, a Ghanaian friend called to say he was coming to visit and wanted to bring something Dayle wanted. She told him she would like an avocado, but she used the local word for avocado that she uses at local vegetable stands: pear. When he came, he brought actual pears which are hard to find and expensive. It sure was sweet of him but we were embarrassed to have inadvertently caused him the trouble and expense.

When two people in a cross-cultural situation each adapt to the other, the result can be a miss-step like this one. In general, we don’t expect Ghanaians to adapt to us. We are the ones temporarily in a country not our own, so we should be the ones to adapt, even if we don’t always succeed. But Ghanaians are hospitable, so they try to adapt to us. The result can be like ships passing in the night.

When thst happens, intentions matter. When they are taken into account, we end up appreciating each other rather than becoming irritated, disappointed or angry, but we still laugh.

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. – 1 Peter 4:8

Motivation for giving

If you look at the websites and publicity put out by missions and charitable organizations, you will see that many use the “problem” approach to raising funds. That approach emphasizes the lacking, negative or even disastrous aspects of a situation. Then say they need your help to fix it. When I talk to groups about Bible translation, I use several approaches including the problem approach, but I don’t emphasize it nor do I use guilt-inducing emotional appeals, or fear tactics (If you don’t give something disastrous will happen). I prefer an approach which emphasized the beneficial effects and successes of translation, inviting people to join something significant, successful and blessed by God. The Bible says:

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. – 2 Corinthians 9:7

Andy Ring, who started the translation into the Buem language, being honored at the dedication of the Buem Bible

Here in Ghana, I have discovered that Ghanaians involved in Bible translation use a fascinating type of motivation. It is based on the fact that dozens of Westerners (Germans, Americans, Dutch, British, etc) came to Ghana to do Bible translation. Many were highly trained. My Ghanaian colleagues often mention this fact, emphasizing that highly-trained missionaries often poured their whole professional lives into translation and they did it in difficult places where most educated Ghanaians would refuse to live or work. Ghanaian Christians find this inspiring. If high-prestige Westerners do this for Ghana, they conclude, then Ghanaians should do as much or even more.

After all, it is their country. This is a motivation based on nationalism, specifically, that Ghanaians should take responsibility for Ghana.

I would have thought that telling the missionary story would demotivate. My logic would have been that if missionaries are doing it, then it is taken care of so Ghanaians won’t need to give themselves or their money. I have heard some of my Western colleagues express that same concern. But we are mistaken. The missionary story motivates Ghanaians very powerfully. It’s a good thing I was not in charge of communication for fundraising.

The culture gear

A while back, I read an article in a Western newspaper saying that those combating FGM have now discovered that laws alone are not enough; cultural beliefs must also be addressed. I had to laugh because it has been obvious from the beginning that the practice would not go away without addressing cultural beliefs. I remember a highly educated man in Burkina Faso telling me that FGM would never be eradicated among his people because all the women believe that it is necessary for sex and procreation. It may seem incredible to many of you, but FGM continues in part because some women want it. In fact, four married women in Kenya were arrested for voluntarily undergoing the procedure which had been “denied” them in their youth. Women who do not have the procedure may be considered unmarriageable whereas marriage may be a woman’s best chance for economic security and social stability.

Yet despite the obvious and entrenched role of cultural beliefs, those combating FGM have mostly chosen to promote a legal approach. That has not worked very well. A number of countries including Nigeria have banned FGM. Even with enforcement of the laws the practice continues because it is driven by powerful cultural and social forces. The Guardian newspaper ran an article entitled “Criminalization will not stop FGM in east Africa“. It cites a study by Oxford University that found that criminalization has not come close to eradicating FGM, that it leads to dangerous underground procedures, and concludes that social norms need to change. A World Vision study found that as FGM decreases, girls in Somalia are more at risk of being married young and leaving school. Cultural beliefs are driving FGM and the law cannot change that.

Dr. Sule-Saa

Moves to eradicate FGM hold a lesson for Christians that is bigger than FGM – there is a force in human societies that is much more powerful than the law. That is the culture and its embedded beliefs. Compliance with laws is very difficult where the laws run contrary to culture. But these facts hold hope for Christians. Change the culture and either the laws will change to follow or the laws will become unnecessary. Which is better, continually enforcing laws that are being undermined by cultural beliefs, or changing the beliefs and the culture so that the laws are easily enforced and not needed very often? Real, genuine, pervasive and lasting changes come from changing the culture. The Apostle Paul said that announcing the Gospel is the “power of God“. The culture can be changed and the Bible’s message is a powerful force for changing it starting with beliefs and moving on to behaviors. Dr. Sule-Saa who has studied the impact of Bible translations in Ghana says that Bible has become the framework through which people understand the world. That is the foundation of a profound change in the culture. Already, it has reduced conflict among many other benefits.

I don’t want to change the world. I want to leave behind the start of change in various cultures what will keep on changing things long after I leave.

Culture is not cute

It used to be the case that unmarried people working in Bible translation were assigned to languages in pairs. Quite a number of Bible translation programs have been done by two singles, especially by two single ladies. On occasion, one of the singles would leave – for health, to get married, etc. In such cases, we would assign another, usually one who had just arrived.

Local people would treat the first as senior and the newcomer as junior. The newcomer might be the older of the two, but in the local culture the one who had been there the longest had seniority. They would address all questions to the single with seniority, in some cases even refusing to discuss issues when the senior single person was absent. If the junior of the two offered an answer, opinion or suggestion, people would not accept it or act on it until it was confirmed by the senior. As you can imagine, some singles in the junior position found such situations very frustrating or even demeaning.

power-distance-index-graphThese situations were real culture clashes – a high-power-distance-culture meeting an egalitarian (or low-power-distance) culture. Local people are used to playing their role in the culture. In fact, they don’t know how to act any other way. They perceive their actions as polite and respectful while the junior person finds them belittling.

In my recent role in Côte d’Ivoire, I found myself having to constantly adjust to the high-power-distance culture. My natural reactions were often wrong. Even when I knew that I had to adjust and tried, I sometimes failed.

Some Africans have described a major difference between their culture and Western culture like this :

Western : I think, therefore I am.
African : We are, therefore I am.

They are expressing the idea that their value as individuals comes from their belonging to a group – family, clan, village or people. We Westerners, on the other hand, derive our value from being our own person with our own ideas. We may perceive belonging to a group as a threat to our individuality. Africans tend to believe that being part of a group enhances their individual existence.

flagglobe2The great irony in the situation described above is that local people are giving the newcomer a place in their structure thereby affirming that he or she is included. They are treating them exactly like a member of the community. But the junior person experiences this inclusion as exclusion. The harsh reality is that the newcomer cannot hang on to being a western-style individual in that context and at the same time fit into the local culture. Working across cultures is hard. It most certainly has its joyful periods, but if it is never hard, uncomfortable, painful, frustrating or confusing, then we’re not doing it right.

The experiences of US churches which are being intentionally multicultural bear this out. It ain’t easy. The picture some paint of joyful and easy multiculturalism is very misleading.

But we can’t follow our God by withdrawing into our own comfortable cultural space either, tempting as that is. Our God sent his only Son across a huge divide into pain, suffering, misunderstanding, rejection and finally death. The Son made the journey willingly and he invites us to follow him into the lives of people different from ourselves, down the street or around the world.

If you liked this , you might also like Right Decision.

Comfortable in ambiguity

Village in Burkina Faso near Banfora

Village in Burkina Faso near the town of Banfora

Not long after arriving in Africa, I was visiting people in the rural area where I was living. I came across a group of men eating. They invited me to eat with them. I hesitated. Should I accept. I wasn’t hungry. I made a quick decision. After more experience I realized that my decision was probably not the right one.

At first, living and working in a culture not one’s own is an exercise in making decisions without enough information. It is living in uncertainty.

In all cultures people give off clues about what behavior they expect or don’t expect. If you aren’t from the culture and so you don’t know the clues… People say things to be polite that they don’t expect you to act on. Or they say things to which an outsider does not know the correct response. I remember several times understanding every word someone said to me and not having the foggiest idea what to say or do in response. (To be fair, I’m like that in my own culture sometimes too.)

The thing is, missionaries love people. We want to understand them. We don’t want to offend them. So walking around in uncertainty in a culture we don’t know can leave us in fear of making a big cultural blooper. That fear can hang over our heads threatening to jump in and ruin our relationships and our ministry. While it is good to be aware and to learn, we give that fear more power than it really has. I’ve seen missionaries completely stressed out over it. That’s a real source of culture stress.

Ed learning language, 1978

Ed learning language, 1978

People on short term missions trips might not be savvy enough to have the fear, or they might not stay long enough to encounter it. Tourists don’t usually have this fear because they don’t care or aren’t as invested in the outcome because shortly they’ll be gone.

A top coping skill for a cross-cultural missionary is being comfortable with ambiguous situations, not stressing about missing information, and being willing to go through the hard, ambiguous phase until they get a better handle on things, even if that handle is never really perfect.

Information

When Dayle and I were in Côte d’Ivoire, we were part of a small team of Africans and Westerners running translations in almost 30 different languages. We realized that we needed to make some changes in the translation projects. After deciding what changes we would try to make, we also decided how we would let everyone know about them including all the national translators – we would call a meeting. For scheduling reasons, the meeting could not be held right away. We scheduled it for 2 1/2 months in the future. Before that meeting could take place, some of the Ivorian translators were at the translation center for training. They worked in five of the thirty or so languages.

A workshop where translators from five languages perfected their translation of the book of Romans.

A workshop where translators from five languages perfected their translation of the book of Romans.

Some of the Westerners in the small management team came to me during that event and suggested that I tell the national translators who were gathered about the changes. My experience with Westerners is that if there is information, we want to know it as soon as possible. We don’t like to be kept in the dark. They assumed, naturally, that the gathered national translators would want to know soon as well. But none of the Africans in the management team came to me with that suggestion. They thought that the gathered translators should wait to get the information at the same time as the other translators – at the meeting planned to let everyone know.

Working in cross-cultural teams is an interesting challenge. The Westerners want information given out as quickly as it is known. They feel left out if they learn that they did not get information well after it was known. But for the Ivoirians, information is power. If some get it and some don’t, those who get it have an advantage. So they prefer that everyone concerned get the information at the same time, even if that means some who could have had it earlier have to wait.

togetherFor Westerners, being treated fairly means getting relevant information quickly. For Ivoirians, being treated fairly means getting information at the same time as others. There’s only one way to make everyone happy – someone is going to have to change their expectations to match those of their colleagues. Since were in Côte d’Ivoire, it seemed most logical and fair that we foreigners be the ones to adapt.

Making the right decision

decisionAs I have written several times on this blog, we tend to think about culture as the things we see – the different clothes, houses, food, etc. But culture goes deep. In recent years I have been particularly interested in two aspects of culture. One is how different cultures view the causes of things. I’ll reserve that one for another blog. This week, I will describe my thoughts and experiences about how different cultures know what is right – specifically, how they decided if a decision is the right one or not.

Many years ago when I worked in Burkina Faso, I was with a colleague from Burkina Faso and we were working with church leaders concerning the translation of the Bible into their language. At one point, one of them asked why something in the language (his language) was written the way it was. Linguistic nerd that I am, I gave him and explanation of the linguistic reasons why the translators were writing it that way. I tried to take out the technical jargon and I gave a couple of examples. I hoped that I had explained clearly. In any case, the man who had asked the question did not look satisfied.

After I finished, my Burkina Faso colleague took on the question from a totally different perspective. He mentioned the linguist who did the research into the sounds of the language, his qualifications and the amount of time he spent. He then moved on to the translation committee including that it represented  all the churches. Then he said that it was the translation committee which made the decision on such and such a date after reviewing the recommendations of the linguist and studying options.

authorizedThe explanation given by my African colleague clearly satisfied the man asking the question whereas mine had fallen flat. The explanation that the people who made the decision were qualified and duly authorized to do so was much more powerful than my explanation of the linguistic basis.

In other words, in that culture a decision is right when the right people make it.

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana

Dedication of translation committees for three languages in Ghana. These are the right people to make decisions about the translations.

In my Western culture, it is important that I check the evidence myself and make up my own mind. So I found this idea that a decision is right if the right people made it very strange, even disconcerting. It didn’t take much thinking to realize that we often do the same in the West, just not to the same degree.

I work in a cultures were people give more credence to decisions made by “the right people”. Conversely, they distrust decisions made by “the wrong people”. The “wrong people” include those not authorized to make the decision by virtue of their position. It may also include those who don’t have expertise.

Creating something sustainable, therefore, necessarily includes getting “the right people” in on the decisions – from how to write the language to what word to use for “salvation”. This was driven home to me once when a translation of the New Testament fell quickly into disuse because key decisions about the translation were not made by “the right people”. Because of that, people distrusted it. But that’s a story for another time.

Dis-honorable

I was at a meeting where an African was giving a meditation on the story in Luke 13:10-17 where Jesus saw a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. She was completely bent over and could not straighten up. The person giving the meditation repeatedly asked his African listeners about this woman’s condition:

Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?
Is that an honorable position?

DAN_8313

The workshop

Everyone was in agreement that it was not honorable. I agreed too. But if I had been giving the devotional on that passage I would not have focused on the honor or dishonor associated with the woman’s condition. I would have talked about the woman’s condition being painful or limiting. I think that most of my American friends would do the same. We would feel pity for the limitations or pain that such a condition would cause. If we prayed for someone with that condition, it would be to relieve the suffering and limitations that come with it.

Not many of us would pray for relief from the dishonor. Think about the word we use to use about such conditions. We called them disabilities. The focus in that word is on the (supposed) lack of some ability. It is a dis-ABILITY. But my African friend focused on the dis-HONOR. Honor is so important to cultures here that, in a discussion of what makes for good teamwork, one of my Ivorian friends said that is it important to good teamwork that no members of the team bring it dishonor. If they behave in wrong ways, he explained, others will think that the whole team is bad and thereby lacking in honor.

Different cultures bring different perspectives to the same text. My focus on the pain and limitations is not wrong or right nor was my African’s friend’s focus on dishonor wrong or right. Rather, we each bring a perspective that can enrich and expand the perspective of others.

Voices of the PoorIn this case, the perspective of honor and dishonor is very helpful. First of all, it is almost certain that the woman and the people around her in her day had the same focus as my African friend – considering the lack of honor as important as the lack of ability or the experience of pain. So his perspective helps me to understand the incident more like Jesus and the others who were present at the actual event. Second, at the turn of the millennium, the World Bank asked 60,000 experts on poverty from 60 countries to give their perspective on poverty. These experts were the poor themselves. The results can be found in a book entitled Voices of the Poor. Here’s a quote from one of the experts:

Poverty is pain; it feels like a disease. It attacks a person not only materially but also morally. It eats away one’s dignity and drives one into total despair- a poor woman, Moldova.

Voices of the Poor reveals that the poor experience poverty not just as lack of finances. They a feel the lack of respect, the dishonor. When I treat poverty as only a lack of finances, I miss an important way I can fight the effects of poverty – by giving respect to the poor. The same is true for people with dis-abilities, we can counter one of the effects by giving respect.

Jesus brought honor to the woman by healing her. We can’t always heal, but we can follow Jesus’ example by treating with respect those others may disrespect. The person bringing the meditation noted that many of the peoples without the Scriptures are bent into an dishonorable position by poverty, by disdain, or through being marginalized by others. Not infrequently, they see the translation of the Bible into their languages as something that disperses some of their dishonor.