Friday, September 26, 2014

On Piles of Sand and Eating Babies

There's a story in missionary lore about a family who moved to a deep, dark jungle.  The natives were fascinated by the family's food, which came in cans.  They soon figured out that the picture on the outside of the can showed what was inside it.  A picture of tomatoes meant there were tomatoes inside; a picture of corn meant there was corn inside.

Imagine the natives' dismay when they saw cans with pictures of babies on them.

Culture influences everything, doesn't it?

This week, this video has been showing up a lot on my Facebook feed.

It's two African guys and a pile of sand.  They are shoveling the sand into a wheelbarrow, and then dumping it into another, smaller pile.....about six inches away.

It looks ridiculous.  It looks idiotic.  And the person who took the video, and offers a some narration, obviously thinks it's one of the dumbest....and therefore, funniest, things she has ever seen. It's labeled, "Only in Africa."

It has 374,562 shares and over 13 million views.  So I guess a lot of other people think it is funny as well.

Then, two African friends of mine offered an explanation:
When mixing concrete, and you don't have a cement mixer, you use the wheelbarrow to measure--this many loads of sand, this many loads of gravel, this much cement.

Oh.  So these guys are not idiots after all.  They are measuring.  OH.

Guess I'm the idiot now.

This realization hit me hard.  It cut to the heart.  It made me wonder, How many times have I done this without realizing it?  Complained, criticized, mocked, (written about!) something in another culture, when really I just needed to look at it with different eyes?

Why do we always assume the worst?  When people do something we don't understand, why do we always assume that they are ignorant, lazy, or backwards, especially when they come from a culture we perceive as less civilized than our own?

We do this!  We do this!  I do this!

In America, we do this when our immigrant neighbors park their car on their lawn.  Or when they don't cut their lawn.  Or when they paint their house an atrocious color.  Or when they drive too slow.  Or when their parties are too loud.  Or when they put their garbage cans out too early.  Don't they know anything???

Okay, so I get that all cultures do this about other cultures.  Just like the natives who assume the missionaries are eating babies.

I'm quite certain that my house helper thinks I am nuts because I ask her to iron the girls' simple cotton dresses and put them in the closet, whereas their fanciest, frilliest, laciest dresses are stuffed into a basket in the toy room and used for playing.

A friend once reprimanded me because I threw away the chicken neck and after all, that's the best part.

But the difference is that I don't feel condescended about these things.  And yet I do feel that often there is quite an air of condescension that comes from those of us who might be called civilized about the practices of those who are uncivilized.

Ugh.  Ouch.  Amy, we don't use words like civilized and uncivilized anymore.  That was back in the days of imperialism.  This is the 21st Century and we are enlightened.

Except, when I see that 13 million people are laughing at two African guys who are shoveling sand, it does make me wonder how enlightened we really are.

We must ask ourselves, Why do we assume these guys don't have a reason for what they are doing?  Why do we assume they are just being idiots?

"People usually don't act randomly or stupidly.  Those from other cultures may think it random or stupid, but from the local person's perspective, they're thinking or acting out of a larger framework that makes sense to them....Too often we assume others are foolish or illogical simply because their reasoning is not self-evident to us." (Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Servanthood)

I
am
ashamed.

And I am forced to look deep into my soul and examine what I really think about people who do things differently than me.

Since I am in Africa, determined to help and not hurt, determined not to repeat the mistakes of those who went before me, I must
examine
my
heart.

Root out ethno-centrism.  Put condescension to death.  Look for the good.  Assume the best.  Choose humility.

Of course, sin is there.  Some people really are idiots--in any culture.  I was driving with a Tanzanian friend the other day, and a guy was yelling in the middle of the street.  Yeye ni lewa, my friend muttered.  He is drunk.  And many times, there is inefficiency and ugliness or just plain evil.

But can I first realize that sin is in my heart, and will be coloring my view of how I see things?  Can I stop assuming that my way is the best way, that different does not equal wrong (or stupid, or lazy)?

In humility, consider others better than yourselves.

Even if it means giving the benefit of the doubt to two guys shoveling sand.


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