Mission Issues

Thinking and re-thinking missionary issues

Cultural Sensitivity

Something which really upsets me is when I notice a lack of sensitivity in people (Christians) towards those from other cultures. So often I’ve seen this happen in Swaziland, typically when people visit the country and it soon becomes clear that they have no understanding nor any wish to understand and respect certain customs found in Swaziland. Some of these customs were also difficult for us to understand. When arriving in Swaziland my wife and I felt that we would, as far as possible let people use our first names. And for those of you who are non-South Africans: We grew up in a culture where a minister was (and still usually is) addressed as Reverend or Pastor. In an attempt to come closer to the people and to attempt to establish a feeling of unity amongst us, we thought it would be good to break down all barriers that exist – one of them being the use an official title.
So we moved into Swaziland and we introduced ourselves by our first names to everyone who wanted to meet us. Only to find with a shock that we were seriously stepping on toes! The Swazis do not address married people by their first names. Never. A married man is known as Ba-be which literally translates to Father and the women are known as Ma-ge (Mother) and this is then linked to their surnames, like Father Smith or Mother Brown (or rather Ba-be Ndlangamandla or Ma-ge Hlatswako). Furthermore, a wife will never even refer to her husband by his first name when speaking about him, but always by using the surname and vice versa. So there we dismally failed our first test on cultural sensitivity. I was taken aside and severely spoken to because of not keeping to their customs. So now I am the Umfundisi (literally The one who teaches) and my wife is Ma-ge van Wyngaard.
Something else: A Swazi man and woman will never kiss in public. Nor will they hold hands in public. Not even if they are married. One day one of our church leaders who lived across the road from me was away from home for a week or two. When he came back we were in the garden and greeted him happily. His wife and children heard his voice and rushed out to greet him, and he formally shook his wife’s hand and then shook his children’s (infants at that time) hands. Wow! This was difficult. I have quite a number of American friends, many of whom had visited us in Swaziland and from them I learnt that a “bear-hug” is an acceptable way to greet each other and even when two men give each other a bear-hug, it’s still OK. (I’ve got a wonderful friend who used to play football for the Chicago Bears – Mike Cobb – and when he gives me a bear-hug, I disappear from view for a while until he releases me – he’s so huge!) So I’ve now introduced the bear-hug to our members in Swaziland and although very uncultural they really enjoy it when I arrive at church or at other meetings and go around and give each one a hug.
A couple who worked for some time in Swaziland as missionaries once, unknowingly, made a serious blunder. They were living on a farm which was originally intended to be a mission station (have you ever realised that mission means to go and station means not to go!) and close to the house was a dam. On a hot day the two of them got into their bathing suits and spent an afternoon in the cool water. This nearly led to the collapse of the church at that place. Unknowingly they had been swimming in the water which many of the local people use as drinking water (there’s little logic in this, as most Swazi people get their water from rivers where the cattle not only share the drinking water with them but do much worse things in the water than just swimming!) But what had happened was that their swimming in the water was seen as a lack of respect for those living on the farm and it took long hours of talking before they were forgiven.
My personal relationship with the Swazis at present is such that I would easily tease them because of some cultural habit. For example, the Swazis are always late. Therefore, when we have a meeting and we have to wait an hour or two for everyone to turn up, I would tease them because they are using “Swazi time” while I’m using my watch. But then, when I do things which they find a bit strange, they would tease me because of my habits. But I realise that the ease and comfort with which we can now approach each other’s cultural differences, came over many years of building trust and they and I know that, when we smile or even laugh about our cultural differences, then it is always done with love, respect and understanding and never to humiliate the other.
By the way: This is my 100th post on this blog! And I still have plenty of topics I want to write about.


Friday, September 14, 2007 - Posted by | Africa, Building relations, Culture, Culture Shock, Humour, Mission, Racism, Swaziland, Theology

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