Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

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!

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Thursday, August 30, 2007 - Posted by | Culture Shock, Mission, Swaziland

10 Comments »

  1. I wonder about how you avoided major culture shock. Do you think it is because you were already in a nearby country to Swaziland? The reason I ask this is because American culture is so different and I wonder if Westerners experience more of this because our culture is so affluent. Even the poorest here generally falls within the top 1% of the richest people in the world. The sheer number of electronic appliances (mp3 players, video games, TV’s, etc)and the relative ease with which most people live (sedentary inside the house versus manual labor) I think would serve to stand in such bold relief to village life in Swaziland.

    Comment by Maya | Thursday, August 30, 2007 | Reply

    • Poorest in US DOESNOT fall within the top 1% of the richest people in the world. You are a very very misguided person.

      Comment by Anonymous | Tuesday, February 1, 2011 | Reply

  2. I’m not quite sure. The fact that we were married DEFINITELY made it easier. (Hey, that’s another topic for the future, whether it is an advantage or disadvantage to be married in missions!)For us it did help that we could at least speak to each other about our experiences. I have mentioned my colleagues without whom I don’t think that we would have coped. We lived fairly far from each other – the closest being one and a half hour’s drive from us, but we did have an agreement that we would all meet once a month for Bible Study and personal sharing (almost like an informal type of de-briefing) which also helped us. On a more personal level I think I had the conviction that this was REALLY where God wanted me to be. Perhaps it was also a Godsend that we couldn’t get too comfortable with “our” people in the area. What you mention about wealth is true, but then again we ourselves are seen to be filthy rich compared to most of the people we are working with, so in a sense we are confronted with the same situation, (although, measured against other people of our age and with the same or less education, we are also fairly low down on the scale).
    By the way, the girl I mentioned also comes from South Africa, so that doesn’t seem to be the real difference.

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Thursday, August 30, 2007 | Reply

  3. Hi
    I think that culture shock is inevitable but if you have prepared about it, it won’t be so stressfull, I have been in South Africa and Africa and I was struggling to fit in others culture but it depends in how you are willing to die to self for the sake of the Gospel and Jesus Christ.

    Comment by hanitra | Tuesday, September 18, 2007 | Reply

  4. Hi Hanitra. I will be writing about the concept of preparing for missions sometime in the future and I do think that it is essential that people be prepared also for culture shock. I think what made things a bit difficult for myself was when I experienced culture shock in a totally unexpected way by feeling that I was rejected by my own people because of the choice that I had made to be a missionary amongts the Swazis.

    By the way, which country do you come from?

    Comment by Arnau van Wyngaard | Tuesday, September 18, 2007 | Reply

  5. […] giving towards the work of God, but should I take that money for our ministry? A few weeks ago I wrote about my experience of culture shock and mentioned an old man who informed me, three days after my […]

    Pingback by Should all tithings be channelled through the local church? « Mission Issues | Saturday, October 6, 2007 | Reply

  6. […] Our Experience of Culture Shock […]

    Pingback by What are readers looking for on this blog? « Mission Issues | Friday, December 21, 2007 | Reply

  7. […] to be written about this and especially on how it could be handled in a positive way. A previous post which I wrote on how we handled culture shock still seems to be one my most popular posts which […]

    Pingback by Handling Culture Shock « Mission Issues | Tuesday, January 8, 2008 | Reply

  8. Your story reminded me of when we went to Utrecht in 1976. I was then an Anglican, and there had not been an Anglican priest there for 33 years. A priest (black) used to come over from Khambula once a month for a service in St Michael’s (white) and St Matthew’s (black). There were also outstations of farm labourers at Groenvlei and other places. The whites had asked for a priest in town, so we went. Two weeks after we arrived, the blacks were ethnically cleansed, and moved to Madadeni. There were a few coloureds, a few blacks working on the mines, but the rest had gone. So we closed St Matthews and said we would have a service every Sunday at St Michaels, then go to outstations. The whites complained that there were too many services (what did they expect, they asked for a priest?).

    The church was also used by Methodists later in the morning, and by the Assemblies of God in the evening. We started having evening services as well, but then said why have it after the Assemblies people left — let’s combine. So we did. The Methodists moved out when some of the coloured kids who had “got religion” stayed for their service to have a double dose. The Methodists were all white, and moved to having ther services in the reform school.

    There was an NG Kerk, and and the Methodists and us. Our evening service had everyone, all denominations, all colours. We had an evangelistic mission one weekend, but few white people came. And Oom Manie Craffert, an old white man who went to the Afrikaans Baptist Church in Newcastle in the mornings, and came to our ecumenical mengelmoes in the evenings, said, “If you want to convert the white heathen in this town, we must all pray for the dominee, because they all go to his church.” And you could see them there, the rich farmers in their Mercedes Benzes. I think that was a similar experience to yours, perhaps. The dominee joined us once or twice. I think he found it a pleasant escape. Not exactly culture shock, but maybe faith shock. The people who thought of themselves as the upholders of “Christian civilization” just didn’t care at all.

    Comment by Steve | Friday, February 26, 2010 | Reply

  9. We are seeing the same thing, the culture shock of seeing Christians with little interest in reaching Africa.

    Comment by David | Monday, June 11, 2012 | Reply


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