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)


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

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.


Joan said...

Timely reminder. I often judge others through the lens of my life.

Sarah said...

I linked to this from Tim Challies and started reading without noticing the rest of the site. I was halfway through thinking, "this author's style seems so familiar" before I realized it had to be you!

Corby Amos said...

Along with the obvious application, there is another just as important. This story illustrates why it is so important to, as much as possible, understand Scripture through its cultural context (ancient Near Eastern, 2nd Temple Judaism, etc.).

Jessica said...

Well said. Thank you for reminding us all how much we need to humble ourselves and let our default be grace.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing this excellent and timely article. Having lived in Mexico for 6 months I grew to appreciate their differences on how they do things. They had some customs that we could all learn from and use here in the U.S.

Victor said...

Thanks for sharing Amy. Too often the phrase “This is Africa/TIA” is used ignorantly and, needless to say, in a pejorative manner. Too often immigrants in any country would want natives to think, behave, drive and act the way they would want them to; without due respect to context, diversity, level of technological development, cultural considerations and such like. Too often Paul`s command on humility is tossed through the window out of sheer ignorance: everyone must act the way I want them to and those who can`t or act differently are either stupid or backward, or both. Too often we have preconceived notions, in a manner of speaking, about certain groups and these notions are in most cases ill conceived. We judge others- and too often we don’t realize it- using our lives, culture, background etc as the yardstick. Really, the joke is on those who laughed at the two guys in the video. The only good thing about the video is that it can be used as a teaching aid in cultural diversity classes! What wretched people we are!

Mama Tumi said...

Guilty! It's funny how I can get so defensive over videos like this when I am aware of how innovative these guys are being with the lack of "modern" technology, and get so angry at things I probably don't understand while driving down the street.

Amy Medina said...

I really appreciate these comments--thank you!

And Victor--so much wisdom. Thank you for your patience with us wazungu.

Mona-Liza said...

I'm with your friend on the chicken necks! ;)