Culture…unless you are an anthropologist, you just do not realize what a tangible entity culture is until you are doing the tango with it and you do not even know the steps. When you are living life in your own culture, you are able to breeze through on muscle memory. Social interactions are largely like tying a shoe or opening a door, something you could do with your eyes closed. But transplant yourself into a different culture and social interactions could then be compared to doing the cha cha…blindfolded….after a few drinks….with a person who does not speak your language…wearing lead boots….you get the picture.
I have been thinking a lot about culture, for the past two and a half years as I have been trying to cha cha my way through awkward social situations too numerous to count. I am not just talking about trying to make friends or know what to do at a wedding or funeral, although that is certainly part of it. I am also talking about attempting to understand people’s basic motivations and desires when they come from a place so different than your own. I have decided living in a different culture is very similar to doing yoga. Anyone can do yoga. You can buy a mat and watch a video or go to a class. You do a few poses and you might think, this yoga thing is easy or yoga is barely even exercise.
However, if you actually practice yoga, really, really practice, you realize that it gets exponentially more complicated the longer you practice. You go from flopping through a couple of poorly executed stretches, to flowing through sequences with increasing awareness of every muscle, every breath, every gaze, every thought. Living in a different culture is so much like practicing yoga in that it also becomes exponentially more complicated with time and practice. Anyone can come here, and it is great. You might love it and you might really feel good here, but the truth is, you are flopping through with barely any insight into the depths of complication. Once you practice culture, you realize it is breathing, and thinking, and every single muscle in concert. I am not a culture yogi (or a yoga yogi, for that matter). I am simply to the point that I realize this is way more complex than I ever realized.
Yes, that is a picture of the color white. But it goes really great with whatever savory dish with which it is pared. Also it is cheap and insanely filling so it is easy to understand why people with limited resources would sing ugali’s praises. Oftentimes I have found myself wandering into the kitchen asking when the ugali was going to be ready. This is normally on the days when my kids are at Neema House and I need to know when I can get those perpetually hungry girls off my back. Every single time I ask how long until the ugali is ready, the answer is ALWAYS “five minutes.” I have never actually cooked ugali, but I can tell you from experience that if the water is not boiling, then it is going to be 35 minutes until I can feed my whining children. This is a scenario that has repeated itself multiple times. I say, “When is the ugali going to be ready?” and they say, “5 minutes.” Like a loop….When?…5 minutes….When?….5 minutes. You would think that I would learn. Again I barged into the kitchen, because my kids are making me crazy and it is past 2PM. “Grace, when is the ugali going to be ready???” And she said….wait for it…”5 minutes.” I hung my head and walked out of the kitchen, then I turned right back around (did you know that the word for white people is wazungu, which literally translates, those who walk in circles) and I marched back in, lifted the lid to the ugali pot, and the water was not even boiling. At this point you should feel sorry for the cook. I turned my glare to her, and with the pent up frustration of every single time I have been told that the ugali would be ready in five minutes I snarled, “WHY DID YOU TELL ME FIVE MINUTES? IT IS OBVIOUSLY NOT GOING TO BE READY IN FIVE MINUTES!!” And you know what she said, (don’t really feel sorry for her, our cook is full of more spunk than what is good for her) “I did not want you to feel bad, so I told you five minutes to make you…..happy.” And right there, on the spot, my American head exploded and I laughed and laughed and laughed. Grace probably thought I was crazy. That experience was a cultural epiphany like a light turning on in my mind. Here I had been so frustrated, wanting to know an exact time and being told five minutes. All the while Grace was trying to make me happy by telling me what she thought I wanted to hear. I was the one perpetually blundering my host culture. A Tanzanian would never (as in never ever, risk bodily harm doing so) go into the kitchen to ask when the ugali would be ready. But if by some off chance, they were about to die and they wanted a last taste of that glorious white blob, they might ask, and the cook would tell them five minutes. And they would know that was not true, but they would die happy because she had told them a good thing, even if it was a blatant lie. This is culture folks, and you cannot even imagine the reaches of tentacles into the minds of every person. We are all humans, but we are NOT the same. For two years I had wondered why the cook would not just tell me when the ugali would actually be done. Was she messing with me? Was she daft or did she just not know her job? All the while she was wanting to make me happy! To her way of thinking, the impact of what she said was more important than the actual reality of the situation. And this is just a small thing. We ended up having a long talk about how westerners think about time versus how Tanzanians think about time. The conversation drew quite a crowd, and to a person, they were all shocked that anyone would want to know the actual time or might become bothered if they were told the ‘happy’ (albeit untrue) time and then have to wait significantly longer than expected. They were surprised that we would not tell an untruth for the express purpose of making people feel better. Our family is not the only ones having to learn about the impact of culture. Our staff also has to try to understand why the crazy American keeps coming into the kitchen asking about cooking time, when it obviously is going to be done whenever it is done.
I put a Facebook post up a few days ago, and it got quite a bit of attention. Part of the post told about being congratulated on my ever expanding girth. Now I am really not much bigger than I have ever been. On that day I happened to chose my jeans and shirt combination poorly, and they accentuated the less lovely portion of my midsection. I was just strolling down the hallway, minding my own business, when one of the nicest, most soft spoken nannies crossed my path. She stopped midstride, patted my stomach, and said, “mafuta mingi” which translates ‘much oil.’ She flashed a big smile and looked into my eyes and then just kept walking. I wanted to rage. I wanted to cry. I had just recovered from a two day stomach bug AND I had worked out that day. I was feeling skinny and she had to go and congratulate me on my ‘oily’ midsection. However, the sweet nanny could not have been more genuine or complimentary. In her mind I was looking very accomplished with my midsection bulk. Because to her, extra weight means plenty of food, and plenty of food means plenty of money, and plenty of money means success and blessings from God. My love handles translated into money and success and power, and all these things are the ultimate goal for someone in her culture of too little. I decided I would not rage, or cry, or even feel bad. I would feel blessed, just like she meant me to, and move on with my day. Although I do wish I could transfer some of my “success” onto her skinny booty.
I am definitely trying to be funny and try to tell you about some of the interesting and laughable cultural clashes I have had as I have waltzed with my lead boots and blindfold on tight. My take home lesson has been this: just like yoga, culture is a practice. Culture is not something you ever figure out or become fluent in or check off a list. Interacting in a culture that is not your own is a trail of humility and struggle. It is also full of laughter and learning. One of our current volunteers has a great saying that I think should be written on my hand which goes, “evaluate and adjust.” It seems so simple, but it is a mindset that shows respect and honor and keeps you from breaking your brain. Everything I thought I knew coming in to this work must be in submission to ‘evaluate and adjust’. Every resource I had for solving a problem, every tactic I had for leadership, it all has to be questioned and re-considered constantly. Because what worked for me then, in my culture where I knew the steps, does not work here. That does not give me the green light to start to modify their culture to fit my model. It means that I must modify myself to fit their model. I must be humble, and then humble again, and then humble again until I get to the point where I am at least not offensive, and hopefully effective. It is a practice, no different than yoga. That is what I have learned about ministry in a different culture so far.