Our Experience of Culture Shock
We have three teams from OM (Operation Mobilization) in Swaziland at the moment. They do their practical training in outreaches in rural areas in Swaziland which is a great honour for us, as we feel that we can really make a lasting impact on these people’s lives by exposing them to families in Swaziland. The group joined us for a church service on Sunday and I was pleasantly surprised to find one of the team members who had done her training in Swaziland a year ago also present. She had volunteered to return to Swaziland after her training and is presently helping at an orphanage. She wanted to come and meet the new team at church.
After the service I spent some time with her to hear how she is experiencing the work in Swaziland and it became clear that she is still reeling from the effects of culture shock. In 1985, when my wife and I went to Swaziland, very few people spoke about culture shock. It was more or less a matter of: You chose to come – jump in and do the work! I have mentioned before that God had given me two wonderful mentors in Swaziland. Without them, I’m not sure that we would have coped.
However, some years ago my wife and I were discussing our first few years in Swaziland. In the meantime the words Culture Shock had become more common and we were trying to analyse to what extent we had experienced it and how well we had handled it. What surprised us that we couldn’t really remember negative things that had happened between ourselves and the Swazi people that we could specifically link to culture shock. Of course not everything had been positive. Will I ever forget the day I had to appear in a traditional court! I’m making notes and will post a few stories about some things that happened to us that we laugh about today.
But I think we experienced culture shock in a totally different way. I’ve mentioned often that my wife and I grew up in Apartheid South Africa. When I received the invitation to come to Swaziland, we were worshipping at a white Afrikaans-speaking congregation in South Africa. I had two weeks in which I had to pray about this invitation before giving my answer. Within that time the pastor’s wife asked my wife what I was planning to do about the invitation. Diplomatically my wife answered: He’s not sure yet. He’s still praying about it. And then this woman answered: Come on! Stop joking! Don’t tell me that he is seriously considering going to Swaziland! (I think the biggest lesson we learnt that day was that a missionary is no big hero!) That, we realised afterwards, was our first culture shock – we were not always going to be supported by the people who should have been the closest to us.
Well, we moved to Swaziland and were surprised to find a number of white, Afrikaans-speaking farmers living in Swaziland, from the same denomination that we come from. These were “our” people (or so we thought) and we were in “their” country and we realised that we would really need their support. And then our next big culture shock came when we realised that these people were not interested at all in the work we were doing. Some of them openly rejected us – not for whom we are but for what we are doing. Some of them had long and hard arguments with us trying to prove to us that it was impossible for black people to be Christians (I’m not joking!) Increasingly we felt that we were being alienated from “our” people. Our worst culture shock was when we realised that “our” people who were supposedly living so close to God – Reformed, Calvinistic Christians – didn’t care a hoot what happened to the Swazi people! One old man came to me shortly after we arrived in Swaziland and said: Dominee, (Afrikaans for Reverend), I respect your position as minister, but I don’t want anything to do with you or your work! (Can you imagine how it feels when you hear this in a foreign country where you had just started as missionary?) All the glory to God – that man eventually became our greatest supporter in the work that we did. God changed him completely!
The positive that came from all of this was that we moved closer to the Swazi people. They became our true friends. They accepted us as we are. Perhaps this is one reason why we did not experience acute culture shock in our relationship with the Swazi people.
Have things changed regarding the white people’s attitude towards the Swazis? Fortunately, to a certain extent, they have. Its not universal yet. Some of them will never accept us fully, except if God does a miracle in their lives. In some cases God has done such a miracle. But my original realisation still stands: Missionaries are no big heroes!