Missions: A Cross Cultural Adventure in East Africa
Ni Bora Ufike
This KiSwahili phrase means, "It is better you arrive". This is the traditional sentiment adhered to in East African Culture. My husband and I were once invited to a 10:30 a.m. wedding and arrived promptly on the morning of the grand event. Upon our arrival, we noted that the bridal party had arrived at the church and was decorating. No other guests were in site. We waited for three hours for the wedding to start. We quickly learned that it that if you were invited to a wedding, the day was set aside for the event. Life in East Africa is relational. The event is what is important, not the time. The photo above is of a beautiful Masai couple getting married. The groom was a student at Pwani Bible Institute, where my husband taught theology and I worked as a nurse. This wedding was actually quite punctual and very beautiful.
Use Plan B or C
Flexibility is a Key Component to being Involved in Missions
Being flexible is integral to being successful in missions. Always be prepared to change your plans. You most likely will not use plan A and you may have to use plan B or C. If you develop a mind set that things will never go as planned, you will never be disappointed. Rigidity just doesn't work well on the mission field. The following is a story that illustrates this point.
Heli-Mission Helicopter Story
The plans were made. The El Nino rains had cut off access to medical care for the Orma tribe in North Eastern, Kenya. The villages were like tiny islands and the people were dying of cholera. We were to be dropped off into a different village each day by helicopter, for three days, to help the critically ill villagers. The first day went as planned. The second day, however, we found that we had been dropped off in the wrong location. Six people had actually died of cholera in a village down the river. The only way that we could get there was to hire some villagers to get us and our supplies there by dug-out canoe. We waited several hours while being bitten by huge, malaria infested mosquitoes, then packed about 10 of us and our belongings and rode for about 2 hours in the blaring sun. The canoe rim rode about 3 inches above the crocodile infested Tana river. At the end of the day we had to hang cloths up in the trees to flag down the helicopter. The day was unbelievable. An old man was lying in the corner of his hut, dying of dehydration. A pair of infant twins both had cholera and were very weak. I was able to get one of our last infant butterfly needles into the vein of one of them and the mother spooned oral re-hydration solution into the other. We hung IV's from the trees. All of the people that day survived and I wrote a free verse poem expressing the gratitude which I felt in my heart. The poem was published in the World Outreach magazine of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church but I retain the rights and would like to share it with you.
Then Comes The Rain
Tearless eyes cried out from a tiny body,
his three months appearing as one,
fontanels sunken like a buried treasure waiting to be discovered,
skin shriveled around the rib cage, hanging onto the bone,
like meat that has been well cooked, a raisin drying in the sun.
An old man, like dried up corn, lies in the corner of a woven house,
a fold of skin pinches to form a hill which remains
where it has been placed,
Eyes are glazed and staring, devoid of hope, a scorched earth searching for rain.
Then comes the rain, drip, drip, drip from a tiny IV
placed in an almost non-existent vein,
Drip, drip, drip, five hours of life-giving water,
The eyes lose their frantic look, the skin is unglued from the bones,
The little one is placed at his mother's breast and begins to suck up life.
Drip, drip, drip, the old man searches the room with his eyes,
Drip, drip, drip, the hill of pinched skin eases back unto the hand,
Life-giving water courses through the veins,
five liters in as many hours,
He utters words of thanksgiving but they are not needed.
My heart is full of thanksgiving, of life.
Do Things the way the Nationals Do them
As Westerners, we have the tendency to use the latest and greatest in every area of our lives. When we go overseas, we want to transport that way of living with us. When we take a short-term mission trip, we generally bring our good medicine, provide money for transportation to our conferences, give out electronic gadgets with portions of Scripture in the native language and so on. This is fine for people who are coming in and out of the country and is appreciated by the people being served. However, for the missionary who will be living in the country long-term, there comes a point where what he or she does must be able to be copied by Nationals in such a way that it is affordable and is done in a style that is acceptable. It needs to be sustainable and reproducible.
National Missions trip to Bundibugyo
A case in point is a Missions trip that I took with a group from a local church in Uganda. This was a church that believed in missions. They went to help the prisoners and the Pygmies in Bundibugyo as well as hold evening crusades in the town. Although Western money was involved in helping with bus transportation to the border everything else was paid for by the local church. We stayed in a $2 a night hotel. We cooked our own National food over charcoal stoves and walked or piled into the back of a pick-up truck for transportation into town. It was a success. Everyone had a great time. People were treated medically. People came to know Christ. We danced and played flutes with the Pygmy villagers. The local church has returned numerous times to continue their work.
Man Placing Food in Bag after Purchase
Watch for Cultural Differences
Looking at a simple topic, like eating food, there are many things to observe. Do people eat communally? Who eats first? Do children eat with their parents? What hand is used for eating? Are utensils or the fingers used for eating? What food is forbidden? Do you eat in public? Do you wrap up food items so they can't be seen when they are transported? What is the staple of the diet? It is important to adjust to local customs while maintaining some level of comfort for yourself or your family. While doing your best to adapt, it is important to realize that we will never be totally integrated into the culture. We have a cultural background as well and the best we can do is to hope to mesh our two worlds.
Know When to Fold Em!
There comes a point when sometimes there are just too many barriers to cross. At that point it might be better to admit personal defeat and let someone else solve the problem. I was asked to supervise at a small local clinic about a days drive from Mombasa, Kenya. The clinic had been built the prevous year with Western funds and was being managed by a respected local pastor. A team of men from the village had been set up to manage the clinic. It wasn't long before I discovered that funds were being misappropriated by the pastor. Money that was intended for medicines were being diverted and the bills were not being paid as expected. After banging my head against the wall for about a year, I realized something. A white, middle-aged female was not going to change the situation. The people on the committee believed that it was not so unacceptable to skim money as long as the clinic remained functional. I called an older white male doctor and asked him to take over. He had a much better chance of being able to negotiate with the elders than I did.
Remember the Focus
Don't Forget Why you are there.
Sharing the Gospel of Christ should remain the focal point of missions. That is what separates it from a strictly humanitarian endeavor. Sometimes we get so caught up in doing our good work that we forget we have a primary goal. That goal is to offer people God's forgiveness and a right relationship with their creator through Christ. We need to keep that in perspective, realizing that what we do for people physically is a temporary fix and that we are eternal beings meant to spend eternity with God. On God's timeline, the life that we spend here is only a speck in comparison to the eternity we will spend with or without God.