Culture Clash: Beautiful Discomfort

Jason translating for Kim (photo taken by the wonderful agogo Christy Zatkin)

I haven’t posted a blog for a couple of weeks. I’ve started many, but haven’t had time to complete them. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I’ll have plenty of time in airports and airplanes over the next few days.

It’s been a crazy month; one that has left me tired and confused. I’ve had little time to process the fact that our time in Malawi is actually coming to an end in less than a week. A few days after my in-laws left, the first folk from the LJPC Malawi Mission Team arrived. Two days later the entire team was here.

My Malawian friends had always told me that hosting a mission team was draining. I used to laugh and shake my head; I had been on many mission trips and even had played host in the US. How difficult could it really be?

Christy and Tobias making windows...

Within a few days I realized how tiring it really was. It was great to share what our world has looked like the last ten months with friends from home. When you’re on a team that parachutes in for a few weeks, you usually don’t get to see the real Malawi. Our hope for this team was that, because we had been here for some time, we’d be able to facilitate friendships and interactions that might not normally occur.

 

Hailey and I purposefully planned to have Malawians and Americans working alongside one another for the entire trip. It was beautiful to see the two teams become one. But it was also uncomfortable at times.

I often felt like I was standing in no man’s land without a culture to call my own.

  • Malawians are tough people. I’ve seen many function well on little to no sleep, pick up things with bare hands that would burn holes through mine and do things with their teeth that would cause any American dentist to cry. On one hand they are very resourceful and on the other extremely wasteful. They work very quickly but often do so without paying much attention to detail.  For most Malawians, time is relative and secondary to community. Family is extremely important, but communication within it is often poor. Hospitality is a must and most go out of their way to make visitors feel welcome. Life is not compartmentalized into secular and spiritual.
  • Americans are needy in a completely different way. They are used to many creature comforts and often have an unhealthy superiority complex (a blog for another day). They are efficient but get cranky when things are done differently. Most are punctual and keep time. What they know is normal, so everyone else should live and function in this way. If not, the other is seen as wrong or unintelligent. They don’t really know how to live in community or honestly put someone else’s needs, desires or well being above their own. And, they love their stuff and have a ton of it.

Please forgive me for being hypercritical. I’m not trying to single out any one person. Nor do I mean to offend anyone (and I apologize if I have). I hadn’t spent this much time with a large group of Americans for ten months and I largely forgot what my own culture looked like. I also had become so entrenched in Malawian culture that I forgot many of its annoyances. I was seeing Malawi through new eyes all over again.

It was difficult, wonderful and challenging all at the same time.

One night the American half of the team walked to dinner. I said the journey was about a half a mile. While walking some joked that I had “become Malawian” because the distance was longer than what I mentioned. They were tired, hungry and not used to walking in such a state. When we got to the restaurant, I turned around and ran back to get the car for our return after dinner. For fun, I set the odometer on the way back. The team was right, it was more than a half a mile—a whooping whole kilometer (about three fifths of a mile)!

A Malawian wouldn’t complain about the distance. They wouldn’t mention that they were

Bob, Rev. Phula and Tobais "cutting" glass

sick, tired or hungry. They’d go with the flow and let life happen. But it’s the same lack of urgency and attention to detail that leads to avoidable deaths in the country’s hospitals.

 

As we dropped the LJPC team off at the airport I was relieved and terrified. During the eleven day visit we had preached and prayed in a Muslim community, visited various institutions at the Nkhoma Synod Headquarters and brought much needed love to the Malingunde School for the Blind by providing a camp for its students and renovating their dormitories. And the whole time the American team encouraged and worked with the Malawian church.

I was relieved because the entire trip I had been standing between two very different cultures. I was terrified because I didn’t fit in either of them.

UPDATE: After writing this blog I read this quote by Eugene Peterson in his Under the Unpredictable Plant. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way.

North American religion is basically a consumer religion. Americans see God as a product that will help them to live well, or to live better. Having seen that, they do what consumers do, shop for the best deal…It is interesting to listen to the comments that outsiders, particularily those from Third World countries (Eugene, I love what you write and it has taught me much, BUT you need to use the term”developing countries” here my friend…), make on the religion that they observe in North America. What they notice mostly is the greed, the silliness, the narcissism. They appreciate the sze and prosperity of our churches, the energy and the technology, byt they wonder at the conspicuous absence of the cross, the phobic avoidance of suffering, the puzzling indifference to community and relationships of intimacy