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


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.


When he was about 4 or 5, our son Matthew was at our neighbors house in Ouagadougou – a wonderful Burkina Faso family who befriended us. They had an outhouse and indoor plumbing. He needed to use the bathroom, and he chose the outhouse. But he opened the door to find the man of the house inside. He quickly closed the door and went back to play and wait.

When the man came out, he scolded Matthew for opening the door without knocking. Matthew followed our careful instructions about what to do when an adult talks to him –stand there, look the adult in the face and listen. The man was furious with his behavior and complained.

In Burkina Faso, we had often seen children running from parents reprimanding them. We had taught our children “better”. And that was the problem.

When the lady of the house brought Matthew’s behavior to our attention, we learned something – that when a child runs from an adult, that child is showing respect; but when a child stands there, looks the adult in face and takes it, that child is defying the adult. Matthew’s behavior, which we had carefully taught him, was perceived as defiant and disrespectful.

Matthew with Morelle and Susanne, the lady mentioned in the story

Matthew with Morelle and Susanne, the lady mentioned in the story

As I have noted before, we tend to think of culture as the stuff you can see – the food, the houses. But culture defines behavior. The same action that is respectful in one culture can be disrespectful in another. Respect and disrespect are universal – every culture has them. But what actions and words show them is anything but universal. The greatest commandments – that we love the Lord our God and our neighbor – are universal, the things we do to show that love are culturally determined. Being a Christian in another culture means loving and respecting people on their terms, not on mine.

PS: We managed to smooth the waters with our neighbors, in fact, we are great friends to this day.