Monthly Archives: October 2014

Cultural Conundrums

How do you do it? I mean really? How do you live the day to day in a culture different from your own without losing your sense of self? I can eat ugali with my hands, brush my teeth outside, wash my laundry in a bucket, but those are methods of daily survival. How do you move past mere survival to actual relationships? How do you develop friendships when culturally people are open with their lives, but can be very private with their thoughts and feelings?

“Just tell me what you’re thinking,” I want to mentally cry. “Does 2pm actually mean be there by 2 or does it mean I’ll be sitting by myself for half an hour before anyone else ambles in? Can I ask questions about your life or is that seen as intrusive?” I’m not trying to be intrusive. I just want to know who you are? I want to be your friend past surface conversations about food and weather.

Then I realize that’s not how it works. You don’t ask questions without first building trust. Information can be seen as a form of power. What you know about someone has the potential to be used as a tool to hurt or shame them. So the focus is not as much about how individuals feel or think, as it is about how a group functions and how it works within the fabric of tradition. The reputation of the group as a whole is what is important. Individual lives fall within that carefully built structure.

The last several months of coming back to live in Kenya have reminded me just how much culture affects relationships. Living within a mix of cultures can teach so much, but those lessons can be painful at times as cultural misunderstandings leave one or both people with hurt feelings or a sense of frustration.

I’m from a “cold” culture as defined in the book “From Foreign to Familiar” by Sarah Lanier. Cold cultures (so named because they are usually found in cold regions like Canada, the northern states of the US, the UK and many European countries) value individualism, punctuality, and personal expression. I’ve also spent a lot of time in “hot” culture countries spending formative childhood years in the Democratic Republic of Congo and now living parts of the last year and a half in Kenya.

People from hot culture countries tend to focus on the group over the individual, are more event focused then time focused, and place a high value on community. Life often has more of a laid back feel and communication is frequently done indirectly so as to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or causing embarrassment. In hot climates there is much more of a communal sense of belongings so what you have is usually shared with the group.

From a theoretical perspective I love and appreciate both hot and cold cultures. But on a more practical level, it can be difficult living within a mix of the two. I want to share my belongings with the group but get frustrated when a DVD comes back scratched. I want to live a more laid back lifestyle but also find myself feeling anxious when not much was accomplished during the course of the day. Finding that elusive middle ground is a constant challenge.

I’ve been learning lately that it takes time—time to build trust, time to establish a reputation, time to understand yourself and why you think the way you do so that you can understand someone from another culture better. But, the breakthroughs do happen. Often when you least expect. As a westerner, I’m learning that I sometimes need to throw out my schedule so that when those times do come, when that trust has finally been built, I can cultivate the moment instead of rushing off and missing it completely. Like last week when my roommate asked me about my family for the first time. The week before she had briefly told me about hers opening the door for future conversations. Now a second opportunity surfaced.

I was able to linger in the moment while we chatted. She was sewing a skirt so I sat down on the floor and painted my nails in order to continue the conversation without standing there awkwardly. As we talked one of our neighbors walked in, and I ended up painting her nails as well. While the nail polish dried we watched a movie. Unplanned, unscheduled but slowly friendships were forming.

I’ve found that it may take weeks even months sometimes but relationships do happen if you stay flexible and are willing to adjust your own ways of thinking. People are more important then DVDs. I’ve had to learned in this communal context that building relationships often involves some scratches. I’m learning to be ok with that. I’m learning to wait and to enjoy the differences. I’m learning that my way of approaching life isn’t always right. I’m constantly learning to be flexible, but the payoff is beautiful as slowly genuine friendships start to form.

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Filed under Contemplations, Kenya, Travel

Take This Cup

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It’s been three weeks of teaching. Something I both love and hate. I love the chance to talk to a group of kids, telling them that they matter and that God loves them. He cares for all of their worries and sees all of their struggles.

But, I dread it. Every week I dread it so much that I can’t think about it for too long before I go or my nerves take over. I hate standing in front of a group and speaking. I feel vulnerable, small, and shaky. I’m not a natural speaker. I’m not a gifted presenter. My comfort zone is pen and paper. There my soul feels free and alive. In front of a crowd my tongue feels tied and mentally I count the minutes until I can sit down again and breath.

To get me through my natural feelings of inadequacy, it has taken a lot of prayer and an intense focus on the Bible story I’m sharing. Each story so far has included a child in some way. I want to show the class of 4th to 8th graders that I have been given the privilege to speak to that they are never too young, to small, or to weak to be used by God.

Last week focused on the widow and her two sons whose story is found in 2 Kings chapter 4.They were desperate with more debt then they could pay. They cried out to God for a solution. I told the row of intent faces sitting in front of me that the story illustrated that no situation is too difficult for God. Following the prophet Elisha’s direction, the widow and her two sons went from house to house collecting jars. Then, as they poured their small cup of oil into the jars that they had collected, God multiplied that cup of oil which they then sold to pay their debts. I told the kids that often God asks us to put feet to our prayers. The money they needed didn’t just fall from the sky, but God provided an opportunity for them and when they followed in faith and obedience their need was met. “God used the little that the widow had,” I told the kids. “It was just a small amount of oil, but from that He multiplied and multiplied. We should expect big things from God,” I concluded. “He can take our little bit, our small lives, our cup of oil and do great things.”

Thankful that the lesson had filled my allotted time I sat down and took a deep breath. God had gotten me through another week. But, God wasn’t done. He took the little that I had and multiplied it. My co-teacher jumped in. He saw the theme that no one is too young or too small to make a difference and ran with it giving a passionate speech about how God wanted to work in each of their lives. By the end of the class time (which had now run overtime) the majority of the class had gathered up front expressing a desire to have a personal relationship with Christ.

God was moving, and to be honest, I was stunned to be apart of it. So we prayed together and then my co-teacher invited those who had prayed to come back later in the day for more a more in-depth talk. I walked away from that classroom amazed, and yet I really shouldn’t have been. God had taken the little cup of oil that I had to offer and multiplied it. Why was I so surprised? Just as I told the class, we should expect big things from God. He moves in His timing and His ways, but He moves. He takes that small bit that we have to offer and when we walk in obedience, and He multiplies it. To God be the glory.

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Filed under Contemplations, Kenya