Parking under mango trees

Mango trees make great shade

A Ghanaian colleague of mine was making contacts in a rural area for Bible translation. In one particular village, he didn’t know anyone. So he parked his pickup under a handy mango tree for the shade. He made his contacts and left.

He learned later that the village chief had passed away some time earlier and that two men were vying for the position. The mango tree under which he had parked belonged to one of them. That man then said that the vehicle parked under his tree showed that he had received an important visitor.

He used that as a reason why people should support his bid for the chieftancy. My colleague unwittingly got involved in a bit of political intrigue.

Working in cross-culture ministry means acting with insufficient information, especially at the beginning. You never know how people are going to interpret your actions. So some missionaries start out with a lot of trepidation that they will make a big mistake and ruin their ministry. That is highly unlikely. In any case, there’s not much you can do about it.

Actually, there’s a lot we can do. Pray that missionaries will have wisdom and good relationships. When I trust God and have his wisdom I can live my life without worrying if I’m parked under the wrong mango tree.


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)

Three older two younger

I had just met a Burkinabé man named Samuel who was visiting friends in our home town. As we chatted, I asked him if he had brothers and sisters. His response:

Three older and two younger

Jan Swanson, Dayle and Samuel

Jan Swanson, Dayle and Samuel

Have you ever had anyone answer that question in that manner? When I ask that question of a fellow American, I expect to get a number, and possibly the number of brothers and the number of sisters. I have had people ask where I came in the birth order with my two brothers and two sisters, but that comes after the number of brothers and the number of sisters, not before.

There is a very good reason why Samuel answered the question the way he did. In his culture, the relative age (older or younger) of one’s siblings is very important. In fact, it is more important than whether they are brothers or sisters. There is a very clear pecking order due to the hierarchy that is a strong part of his culture.

We assume that certain realities, such as family, are universal. In the broadest sense, they are. But the differences in specifics can lead to misunderstanding. Ask many adult, married Africans about “their family” and they might tell you about their parents and their siblings, not their spouse and their children. So even the primary content of the word “family” changes from culture to culture.

When I hear American preachers on the radio on Africa expounding what the Bible says about the family, I have to wonder what is being miscommunicated. Jesus crossed a great gap to come and live with us, be one of us, speak the language of the people, live inside the culture of his day. So we need to do the same, including wrapping our heads around the answer:

Three older and two younger

What’s the News

Burkina Faso Village

Burkina Faso Village

When we lived in Burkina Faso in the Cerma language, we learned that the greeting for someone you had not seen for some time or someone who had traveled some distance to come see you was “What’s the news?” Whether you had some news or not, the proper response was “No news”, because “news” was by default “bad news”. Even if there was bad news, you still responded “No news”. Then after a while you would say, “Well, there is news after all”, and go on to give the “news”. The news could be the announcement a death in the family or some other tragic event.

If this sounds strange, let me ask you a question. When someone asks “How are you?”, don’t you respond with “Fine” even if everything is not really fine? The response “No news” is really no different. In fact, it might be more honest as everyone knows that “No news” is always the first response and any news will come out later. The response “Fine” carries no such guarantee of future clarification.
Ed learning language, 1978

Ed learning language, 1978

There are other similarities.We say “No news is good news”. Also, we might ask someone “What’s up?” which has the same intent as the Burkina Faso question “What’s the news.”

The longer I work across cultures, the more I realize that a lot of the really strange things in other cultures are not really all that strange. In fact, under the differences, we human beings are all very much the same.

If you liked this, you might also like Small Differences, Ghanaisms, or Passing the Purse.

Small differences

When we first moved to Burkina Faso, we noticed that people hung curtains in windows and doorways so that the nice side was visible from outside the house, and the plain side toward the inside. This small difference is a sign of a much larger difference. Houses were for sleeping and storing things, but people lived outside. If you went to visit someone, you sat with them outside their house, not inside.

I was intrigued by a story of an African man who went to a conference in the US. Between meetings he went outside hoping to socialize with other participants. At first he thought that people were not friendly, only to go back inside and find everyone socializing there.

Often, small differences in culture, like curtains turned with the nice side the “wrong” direction, signal more important differences which need to be internalized by anyone working cross-culturally.

Girls pounding fufu

Girls pounding fufu

Here in Ghana, local restaurants list food on the menu by the staple – fufu, banku, rice balls, tuo zaafi (or TZ), kenkey, rice, fried rice, etc. The meat is then added. So you order fufu and then specify that you want fish, or chicken, for example. I am used to American menus which list dishes by the meat, often with options for the staple – French fries, baked potato, rice, etc. A Ghanaian friend of mine was having trouble finding what he wanted at an Accra restaurant with a western-style menu because he was looking the staple he wanted and could only find meats. Americans can have the same problem, in reverse, with Ghanaian-style menus. This small difference shows what is considered the center of the meal – for Ghanaians it is the staple and for Americans it is the meat. I try to adjust. So, if a Ghanaian asks me what I want to eat, I try to remember to say the staple instead of the meat. That way I give an answer that fits expectations.

They say that the devil is in the details. But in cross-cultural work, the joy, understanding and true connections to people often come from paying attention to the details.

Funny or stupid

When you are in a cross-cultural situation and you see something that strikes you as funny or stupid, do three things:

  • Assume that the “funny” or “stupid” thing makes sense from some perspective
  • Assume that it seems funny or stupid because of something you do not know – that it is a sign of your own lack of knowledge of the other culture.
  • Start learning

Sign - The Property Is NOT for SaleLet me give an example. When we arrived in Ghana I stared seeing signs “This land is not for sale” or “Not for sale. Keep off” I had seen many For-Sale signs, of course, But Not-For-Sale-Signs seemed odd and funny. My next step was to wonder what I did not know and my third to start asking questions. As it turns out, there is a very good reason for all those Not-For-Sale signs – real estate fraud. Using forged documents and other tricks, unscrupulous people will sell you real estate belonging to someone else as though it were theirs. Legitimate land owners have found people moving onto their land, or into a house they own, claiming that they bought it. Indeed, they believe that they did buy it from the legitimate owner. Such matters go to court, but that can be a long and expensive process which does not guarantee a just outcome. Some people who were not very good at keeping records have lost their land.

Taken in Accra, GhanaSo painting a prominent Not-For-Sale sign on a wall where it is hard to remove is a very good way to keep unscrupulous people from showing uninhabited property.

When I asked my Ghanaian friends about this, I got interesting stories about problems they, or someone in their family, had with fraudsters trying to take their land. It was a good occasion to get to know them better, and commiserate with them about a trying circumstance. Following those three simple steps gave me understanding and better relationships.

  • Assume that the “funny” or “stupid” thing makes sense from some perspective
  • Assume that it seems funny or stupid because of something you do not know – that it is a sign of your own lack of knowledge of the other culture.
  • Start learning

People who come back from a missions trip only to talk about all the funny things people did, are showing that they failed to dig a little, understand and really connect.