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?

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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.

Accolade

Seminar participants

Seminar participants

Recently, I attended the closing ceremony of a training event held near Abidjan. I found my lowly self in a meeting with a number of august people. One of the teachers at the training event was an American friend of ours married to an Ivorian. She has been involved in Bible translation all her life and is now officially retired, but still active. When it was her turn to speak, the African moderator introduced her as:

Our old mother

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Seminar session

Having spent her life in Africa, she knew that this was an expression of both honor and affection. She is greatly respected for her contributions to Bible translation and for her expertise. She is also loved for her friendship and care. So in Ivorian terms, “our old mother” was the perfect thing to call her in an introduction to an august assembly as that phrase reflects both her exceptional professional accomplishments and her personal care and friendship.

She understood that. However, she did tease the moderator that such an introduction would not be well received in the USA.

Respect for others is a universal in human cultures. It is held as a value even by people who could do much better at putting it into practice. However, the words and expressions people use to show respect are anything but universal. I doubt that any Western women reading this would consider “our old mother” an accolade, but here it most definitely is.

Sustainable consulting

On June 23, I wrote about changes that came out of the conflict and civil way in Côte d’Ivoire. Those changes have sparked some interesting conversations in my temporary role as country director. Ivorians and other Africans are doing most of the translation checking. Translation checking is a quality control process where a person with high level training and lots of experience looks over a translation verse by verse to check that it is faithful to the original and that it is clear and natural.

One of the Africans doing that is doing it part-time. He has a very good job doing something else, but that job  allows him time to check translations and train translators. Someone expressed the opinion that this indicates that he is more interested in money than in translation. Historically, translation checking has been done by full-time Western missionaries or consultants with the Bible Societies. It is new that Africans are doing it part-time while making their living at other jobs. It is not the first time that a colleague has expressed to me a similar opinion.

Seeing part-time translation experts as less than ideal encounters some problems:

  • First, we are short of consultants and we don’t have the money to hire more. So part-time consultants actually fit better. In fact, there are other Ivorian who could be part-time consultants with a little more experience or training, but that hasn’t happened out of concern that it we trained them we wouldn’t have money to hire them. There is enough money to bring them into part-time positions.
  • Second, and more importantly, that is how Africa works including the church in Africa. I meet a good number of Africans who have good jobs or small businesses who also serve as pastors to local churches who cannot afford to hire a full-time pastor. In fact, one is on a committee giving me advice in my temporary role. A Bible College in the Congo found that the churches made most of its graduates headmasters at church schools because the schools receive a government subsidy for headmasters and teachers. The graduate then pastors a church on a part-time basis. Whether we think that this way of doing things it good or bad, it is the way things work.

Historically, the most of the first Bible translations done in European languages during the reformation were done by part-time translators. John Wycliffe, who did the first translation into English, did his translation while teaching at Oxford, lecturing and pastoring. Martin Luther did his translation into German while employed as a priest and university lecturer. Even the King James translators were not employed full-time on the translation. People serving part-time in translation is a long-standing practice in the church worldwide, even if it has been eclipsed by full-time translators in the last 200 years.

Dr. Sherwood Lingenfelter, an anthropologist and friend of Bible translation, came to Africa and taught on partnership. He told us that we ought to be doing “organisational exegesis” with our African partners. That is, we need to understand how African churches and other partners work – how they make decisions, how they pay staff, etc.  It seems to me that a serious look at the church in Africa reveals that having part-time staff is a regular part of how it operates. Because of that, it seems inevitable that as the church here exerts more decision-making in Bible translation, more part-time staff will become part of the picture.

We westerners who are used to the full-time-ministry model need to stop thinking of those who work part time as less than fully committed.

Foreigner

Definition of foreignerI’m living and working in Côte d’Ivoire, a former French colony where the official language is French. Here, I am an “étranger”. That word is ambiguous because it has two meanings: a person one does not know or a person from another country. Asking Google to translate foreigner into French and then asking it to translate stranger into french both result in the same translation: étranger.

But the word in West African languages which is commonly translated foreigner means neither, although it is closest to foreigner. It means a person who is from another place (not necessarily another country) , who has come to take up residence. The community welcomes and harbors the person, lending him land for housing and farming or other economic activity. If the foreigner is a man, someone in the community may give him their daughter as a wife as a way of making him part of the community or even to exercise some control over him.

No matter how long the foreigner stays, he remains a foreigner. His children and grandchildren are still foreigners. However long they live on the land lent to them, it is still a temporary residence. The best translation of the term is “resident alien” (but not an alien of the science fiction type).

Only people from that place are not foreigners. They consider themselves the original inhabitants, even though that is often not the case in historic fact. In fact, if a person considered an original inhabitant moves far away, he is still considered an original inhabitant of his “home” area as are his children, grandchildren and so on. After all, where they now live they are resident aliens. Such people stay original inhabitants even through they may have never been “home”. They are not foreigners if they come “back”. I have asked Africans in big cities where they are from, and I sometimes find out in the conversation that they have never been to that place.

I think that some Americans are adopting some of the same way of thinking. Don’t some of us consider some people”foreigners” if they are culturally different from us even if they have citizenship?

When understanding fails

An African friend told me about a trip he made to the USA. In the course of the trip he was the guest of a missionary who works in his country and the missionary took him to a church meeting where the missionary was speaking. The missionary made quite a point of the bad relationships between different ethnic groups. He cited instances where he saw and heard people from different ethnic groups insulting each other. The missionary explained that he planned to help with reconciliation through the Gospel. The church audience was very moved and gave a large offering.

My African friend was shocked. He didn’t say anything during the meeting, afterwards he spoke to the missionary. He told him about a common cultural practice in West Africa known as “joking relationships“.

Chief in the Ghana's Volta enters a multi-ethnic event

Chief in the Ghana’s Volta enters a multi-ethnic event

I ran into joking relationships early in my missionary career. We had traveled from our village to a nearby town to buy supplies. We went into a little restaurant for lunch. At one point, a man came in and started insulting two of the patrons. They began insulting him back. It looked serious. I thought that a fight was about to break out, so I was gathering my things to leave when they all started laughing and the man who had just came in sat down with them – all friendly like nothing had happened.

When I told an African friend about the event, he explained that there is a joking relationship between some ethnic groups in which they insult each other, each trying to find the wittiest insult. The insults are given and taken in fun. It reminded me of how relationships between men can work in the US. The right way to give a complement to a manly man in some circles is backhanded – in the form of a disparaging remark such as “I’ve seen worse” or “Who would have thought you could do good work like that?”

It turns out that the joking relationship in Africa can be the foundation for overcoming conflict and producing reconciliation.

So, that missionary didn’t understand the joking relationship, thought that the insults were for real and raised money to solve a problem that didn’t exist.

I am reminded again that as an outsider, I need to take time to understand and consult local people before coming up with my own ideas about what needs to be done. In recent weeks, I made at least one mistake because I didn’t do that.

My dear friends, you should be quick to listen and slow to speak or to get angry.
(James 1:19 CEV)