When I arrived in Swaziland in 1985 as young missionary, I had a lot in my favor. I had a passion for God, a passion for the church, a passion for teaching and a passion for building relationships with the people of Swaziland where I believed God had called me to work. (Although I still had much too learn, God graciously kept that reality hidden from me until after I had moved to Swaziland!)
I was fairly naive in believing that all missionaries desired to become one with the people they are working with. But with time, I was shocked to hear that this was not the truth. Stories were told of local Swazis arriving at homes of missionaries where they were told to wait at the gate until the mFundisi (pastor) could see them – outside!. We heard stories of tea being served in tin mugs (reserved exclusively for the use of the Swazis) to people who were not allowed to enter the home of the missionary. In fact, a few days after arriving in Swaziland, a well-meaning White man who was also a member of the missions committee that supported me, came to visit us and informed us that the house which we occupied will be sold and that a new house will be built for our use. Surprised about this news I asked him the reason for this. And the answer was that my office was within the house and it was unacceptable for me to receive Swazi guests in my house. The new house would have an office outside where I would be able to meet with the Swazis. (If you want to read how we struggled with culture shock in this time of our lives, you can read my post on Our Experience of Culture Shock (which, by the way, is still one of my most-read posts.)
Fortunately there was never any money to build a new house and my wife and I made a decision to immediately start inviting Swazis to visit us – within the house! This caused a number of outbursts amongst people who disagreed with us, but by that time we were getting used to not being very popular!
As missionary it is always difficult to know how far one has to go to demonstrate your acceptance of the local people. The life story of Hudson Taylor was well-known to me, who had gone to China and clothed himself in the same attire as the local Chinese in order to become like one of them. In Swaziland things were different. Although the Swazis have traditional clothing, very few modern people will wear them except at traditional celebrations. And so I decided that I would probably not be able to do anything outwardly to demonstrate that I accept the Swazis, but hopefully, through our actions, people might be able to see our attitude. (The way in which this led to a crisis-point in my ministry with extremely positive results, was told in a previous post: Three steps towards successful missions
As time went on, I developed a deep love for the Swazis and started spending more and more time with them, listening to their stories, trying to understand their culture and learning from them. I also became friends with a number of the men so that we would regularly visit each other and also spent time to speak about our different backgrounds so that we could learn to understand each other better.
And then, one day, while one of my greatest Swazi friends was visiting me and we discussed my attitude towards the Swazi people and also how we as family had often been rejected by people from our own culture, he looked at me at one point and made the remark: “Do you know what your problem is? You’re white on the outside, but your heart is black.” I don’t know whether that man, till today, realizes the compliment he had given me on that day. What he was trying to say was that my skin was white, but on the inside, I had become like one of them. This was a breakthrough moment in my ministry.
I’m still not able to do much about my outside. I’m still as white as I’ve been since the day I was born. But I’m hoping that the Swazi people I work with can see through the outer layer right into my heart and sense the love I have for them.