Saturday, July 8, 2017

When Missionaries Think They Know Everything

I wrote this post for missionaries, but it's a revision of something I wrote a few years ago, and it applies to anyone who is experiencing any kind of cross-cultural life (which really should describe almost everyone in the U.S.).  

A few years ago, a video started making its way around my Facebook feed–shared by lots foreigners who live in my part of Africa.  The video showed two African men shoveling sand.  There was a very large pile of sand to their left.  The two men were shoveling the sand into a wheelbarrow, filling it up, and then dumping it…two feet away.

The person filming this video obviously thought the men were complete idiots.  “Watch this!  Wait for it…wait for it…” she gleefully exclaimed.  And when the men dumped out another wheelbarrow of sand just inches away, she could be heard bursting into giggles.

By the time I saw the video, it had over 13 million views and 300,000 shares by people who obviously thought the men’s idiocy was equally hilarious.  I didn’t share it, but I had to admit that it did seem pretty amusing.

That is, I thought it was funny until two African friends set us all straight.  They explained:  While making concrete, in the absence of a cement mixer, a builder will use a wheelbarrow to measure.  One part cement, two parts sand, three parts gravel.  These men were not idiots.  They knew exactly what they were doing.  They were using the resources they had to do something that was actually quite rational.

Oh.

Oops.

I was terribly ashamed.  Not just for myself, but for the millions of foreigners who come to Africa and think that we know everything.  That one little video made me re-evaluate how I view my host country.  It made me wonder how many other times I had the same attitude of condescension about something I knew nothing about.

There was a tag on that video:  #TIA:  “This is Africa.”  This is a common hashtag in my part of the world, but foreigners often turn it into something demeaning.  For example, “Spent all day waiting for my car to be fixed, and then realized they ‘fixed’ the wrong part.  #TIA."

But let’s step back a minute and take a look at that from a distance.  What is “TIA” communicating in this instance?  That everything always goes wrong in Africa?   That no one knows how to fix anything?  That we should have the expectation that everyone in Africa is an idiot?  What would the mechanic think if he read it?

As Christian missionaries, it’s easy to assume that we are above this kind of behavior.  After all, we’ve been vetted, interviewed, and scrutinized more than most people will be in their lifetime.  We’re supposed to be godly, right?  We’re supposed to love the nations, right?   Missionaries could never be racist….right.

Call it racism, stereotyping, or ethnocentrism, but one thing we need to get really clear is that it dwells in all of our hearts in some form or another.  If we’re really honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we really do think we know what’s best.  Our way of doing things is really the most effective.  Basically, I am better than you.  Or at the very least, my culture is better than yours.

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