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

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.

Saved by my skin

I don’t remember where I was or what I did. The reaction it got, on the other hand, is forever burned into my memory.

Village in Burkina Faso

Village in the southwest of Burkina Faso

Maybe my memory fails me because it happened in one of Burkina Faso’s ubiquitous villages of round earthen structures with conical thatched roofs surrounded by fields (photo) and wooded grasslands. They can all seem the same.  While discussing with a group of men through an interpreter, one of the younger men became angry at something I did. His glare matched his rapid and loud tirade. Embarrassed by my gaffe, my interpreter fell silent.

When the young man’s energy was spent, one of the older men spoke a few soft words, the irate young man nodded his approval and smiled. The tension was gone.

“He is just a white man. He doesn’t know anything”, were the words that saved me. The old man was pointing out that I did not know their customs, and therefore I should not be blamed for breaking them.

Don’t try this in a court of law because there “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

I have been fortunate to be working in Africa where my white-skinned ignorance usually gets me a gracious pass. I hope you will return the favor and be gracious to the “foreigners” you meet in your “village” –  especially as we remember that our Lord Jesus himself was born away from home.


Eternal life

From 1978 to 1980 Dayle and I worked in the Cerma (pronounced Care-Mah), language in Burkina Faso. We lived in a place named Niangoloko.  The official language of Burkina Faso is French, but it was only used in government offices.  There are over 70 languages spoken in Burkina Faso.  Cerma was only spoken by about 70,000 of the then 7 million people in Burkina Faso. So, on the street people who did not speak the same mother tongue used a regional language called Jula.

Donkey cart on Niangoloko street

We were cooperating with a mission which had been in the area for quite a few years.  They were doing church planting and evangelism while we did Bible translation.  There were few Christians among the Cerma.  At one point, the mission announced that they were going to organization an evangelism campaign in Niangoloko.  We offered to help how we could.  In the end, we housed a missionary couple in our small place for a week.

Email helping Ed figure out the Cerma langauge

The evangelism campaign was being put on by American missionaries and pastors from Burkina Faso.  The main activity took place in the evening.  There was preaching and sometimes the showing of a film in the main town square. Quite a few people came and listened.  Some responded to the message, but not a lot. Because none of the missionaries or national pastors spoke Cerma, all the preaching was in Jula.  We were even told that ,”Everyone speaks Jula”.  Neither Dayle nor I spoke it at all.

During the week of the campaign, we continued working on language learning and analysis of the Cerma language in preparation for translation.  We were working with a young Cerma man name Emile.  One morning, he told said that many people were asking about a word which had been used in the preaching in Jula the night before. He wanted me to find out what it meant.  When I suggested that he ask directly, he insisted that I ask.

So I wrote down the Jula word and in the course of the day I posed the question to the missionary staying at our house. He was surprised.  The Jula word meant “eternal life” and that had been the subject of the preaching the previous evening.  Well, I guess that was one sermon no one understood!

In the course of my years in Africa, I have come to realize how precarious communication can be when one depends on a regional language like Jula.  People may speak it fluently for everyday matters – family information, shopping, farming – but lack the vocabulary for other topics which never come up when speaking the regional language.

If you liked this, you might also like:
Jesus walks on bonesNot just anyone can translate

Learn more about Africa and out work there on our website, subscribe to this blog, talk with us on Facebook, or sign up to support us through prayer or finances.