Friday, September 9, 2011

Braving the Cultural Mine Field

I've often said that I feel like I'm constantly walking through a cultural mine field. I just never really know what step to take and which one will blow up in my face; half the time I don't even realize I'm in the mine field until it's too late.

This feeling has a lot more to do with my own insecurities than with the reality of my relationships with my South Sudanese friends, neighbors and co-workers.  They know I'm different - it couldn't be more obvious - and so they give me lots of room to mess up, apologize, and learn.

While Seth and I have the benefit of an entire village of people whom we can learn from, for many of the people we interact with, they will only meet a handful of Americans or Europeans (let's just say whites -  what the Sudanese would say), and they will draw many conclusions and assumptions from these few interactions.

This has led to some fascinating discussions and discoveries.

Here to Make Money
When the former co-director of the children's home, our dear friend Ross Kelly, was preparing to move back to the US, our head cook, Lawa, made the comment, "I guess Ross has made his money and now it's time to go back."  This comment was shocking on so many levels.  First of all Lawa loves Ross; they had worked together for five years and she has great affection and respect for him.  So we knew this was in no way a callous remark. She really thought Ross was making a lot of money to work at the children's home and he was heading back to the US a rich man.  She was happy for him.

Just to be clear Ross did not make a large profit living in South Sudan.  In fact he gave up everything to be there and left empty handed.  But…South Sudan is a hot spot for international development, and jobs at non-government organizations (NGO's, US non-profit equivalent) are the best paying, most sought after jobs around – especially because there’s so little economic activity otherwise.  So why else would Ross, or any other white for that matter, come all the way to Sudan if not to make money?

This whole discovery led us to ask Juma John (our friend, pastor, boss and cultural liaison) if people also think we were there to make money.  Juma gave one of his brilliant all knowing smiles, laughed while shaking his head, and said, "Of course they do!"
Let me just gather my body parts.  

Those Materialistic Sudanese
While taking a break from digging the garden, I had a lively discussion with our Program Manager Robert about teaching the children financial responsibility and the value of hard work.  Then Robert says to me, "the problem we have here in Sudan, that you don't have in America, is that people are so materialistic; they spend more than they make."

Yeah, if only the Sudanese could be as non-materialistic as Americans!

Once I got over the initial hilarity of the comment, I thought about trying to describe the causes of the US financial crisis, American's outrageous amount of credit card debt, and numerous other example of American excess.  Instead I asked, "Robert, what makes you think American's aren't materialistic?"

"Well" he answered, "the American's I've met here dress poorly and don't care about how they look."

Oh burn, missionaries!

"Also" he continued, "they are always giving their things away, they are very generous."

Well done America.

Selfish Whites
Seth and I recently moved into a new home in Nimule.  We invited all our neighbors and friends over for a sort of house warming Sudanese style.  After everyone went home our neighbor, Alfred, with whom we had become close, said, "friends all go home, but family gets to stay." This warmed my heart to no end.

So the three of us grabbed another soda and sat on the veranda to enjoy the evening air.  Alfred began to compliment us on the success of the night (and to explain how we could prepare the food better next time). He expressed how impressed he was with our generosity, the way we shared with the people around us, and how we welcomed them into our home. He said, "before I met you I thought all whites would not share with others."

Turns out a few years back Alfred had been a driver for some "whites" who were in Nimule.  He described how careful they were with every shilling and how they required the drivers to pay for all their own meals and water.  Even within the group they were very careful that each member paid their own way.  The experience led Alfred to believe that all whites do not share; that they are not hospitable (as Seth likes to say, “white people are a**holes. Perhaps some of you have had the lovely experience of my husband asking you to disprove this statement?).

After this conversation Seth and I went to bed with heavy hearts, realizing that to maybe 100 or so people in this small region of South Sudan we have represented all whites, in fact all of western civilization.  Oops.  Hope we didn't screw it up too much.

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