Tag Archives: cultural

Leadership | Of Donkeys and People

“One night it’s a donkey, another night it’s a person!”

So matter-of-factly stated an Afrikaner police officer to a colleague of mine, one 1990’s midnight in a North West Province, South African town.

My colleague had been driving a van full of visitors on a return trip to our hotel from a day outing to the luxury resort and casino, Sun City, aka Sin City, when he struck and killed a pedestrian.

Upon arrival at the nearest police station to report the incident, the on-duty officer in all probability simply tried to lessen my colleague’s anguished state of mind by making the “donkey/people comment,” yet in so doing unwittingly voiced his acquired perception of non-white people’s worth and significance:

1 Black Person ≤ 1 Donkey

donkey_blob

Sometimes it’s easiest and more effective to describe the essence of something by depicting its opposite, which is my intention with the donkey story in this thought piece on leadership.

Leadership (at its best) is an inner state of being that feels, perceives, and interacts with all persons as individuals of equal value and dignity to oneself.

Every imaginable leadership book title exists, including 7 Habits, 5 Levels, 6 Steps, 10 Steps, Leadership 101 and 21 Irrefutable Laws, to name but a very few, yet all of them, from my perspective, primarily focus on the external—style or method of leadership, and not leadership’s core essence.

Acquiring leadership expertise by means of habits or steps is enticing because it promises quick results and zero to minimal risk or vulnerability. For instance, seldom will a reader or conference attendee be challenged to say to a child, spouse, subordinate or superior, “I’m sorry,” or “I was wrong,” or to ask, “Will you forgive me?”

Nor will most “instant leadership” books or conferences ask you to contemplate what the other person must be feeling, or what their life circumstances must be like on a day-to-day basis. Rather, focus is on compliance.

Fortunately for those who aspire to a deeper level of leadership significance, whether work, family, or community, this is exactly the type “out of the box” transformational leadership style The Arbinger Institute advocates for in its two bestsellers—Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace.

We are frequently blind to, self-deceived, when it comes to daily patterns of personal thought, speech or behavior, which hurts people and poisons relationships.

In-the-box leadership operates from an unconscious, yet constant need to feel justified or always right. Feeling justified always requires that someone else be wrong, blameworthy, or a problem.  Only when someone else is at fault or a problem can one’s own life feel good or justified in thought, speech or act.

As Leadership and Self-Deception expresses it, “There’s a peculiar irony to being in the box.  However bitterly I complain about someone’s poor behavior toward me and about the trouble it causes me, I also find it strangely delicious. It’s my proof that others are as blameworthy as I’ve claimed them to be—and that I’m as innocent as I claim myself to be. The behavior I complain about is the very behavior that justifies me.”

How does one get “out of the box” of insecurity and self-justification toward others, and thereby demonstrate Leadership outside-the-box?

By developing a point of feeling for the humanity of all “others” who occupy your concentric circles of shared space, concern or influence. Because at that point of affection or emotion, you’re seeing him or her as a person with needs, struggles, hopes and worries, just like yourself, versus an obstacle, problem or inconvenience.

As nineteenth century Anglican bishop to southeast Africa, John William Colenso, similarly stated, “It is not the outward form alone that makes the immeasurable difference between man and other animals. Wherever we find human affections, there we know we have got a human being.”

Habits, levels, laws, steps, or principles of leadership, therefore, are little help in resolving recurrent or deep-seated interpersonal conflict because they simply “provide people with more sophisticated ways to blame.”

People, whether our children, spouses, enemies or colleagues respond more to how they feel we view and regard them than they do to our particular words or actions toward them.

“Most problems at home, at work, and in the world are not failures of strategy, but failures of ways of being. . . . If we have deep problems, it’s because we are failing at the deepest part of the solution.”

In the spirit of The Arbinger Institute, then—Let’s get busy with the deep things!

 

 

 

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Africa, Culture and Africa, Death and Dying, Diversity, Family, Leadership, Life, Loss, Memories, Mentor, Pedagogy, Perspective, Prejudice, Race, Relationships, Religion and Faith, Success

The Devolution of Children’s Development | A Call for (healthy) Boredom

Women’s rights have rightfully progressed since the days and era when even cigarette brands, like Virginia Slims, based their marketing on a then male-dominant social context; popularizing the slogan, “You’ve Come a Long Way Baby.”

VASlims

Regrettably, I don’t think we can unequivocally say the same about children’s developmental progress, particularly in terms of play and interpersonal.

Listen, I’m not suggesting kids are less intelligent today than previous periods. And, certainly, when looking back on history to periods in which “children were to be seen but not heard from,” they, like women, have attained many long-overdue rights and protections.

Rather, what I’m suggesting is this:

Today’s children (North American, at least) seldom experience what I call “healthy boredom”; a type and degree of inactivity that encourages and facilitates creative and imaginative play; voracious reading; friendships with heretofore unknown neighbors, and down time with siblings and parents that often evolves into reminiscing and unrestrained laughter.

Look, this isn’t a researched critique of 21st century life, such as, “technology’s effect on children” (although merely google that and you’ll find 1 million-plus links to expert perspectives on the subject, including “Antisocial Networking?,” “Wired Kids, Negligent Parents?,” or How Technology is Affecting the Way Children Think and Focus.“), but rather, a personal perspective based on a recent cursory trip down memory lane, and a “trip” through my iPhoto folder.

If you’ve read my “About” you know that I grew up in East Africa. That, plus my 40-ish age translates to a childhood void for the most part of typically American childhood experiences such as TV, Six Flags Over Texas and Wet-N-Wild type amusement parks, non-stop sporting events, plus, in the so-called Bible Belt, weekends and summers filled with church and mission activities/trips.

Most of my childhood consisted of post-colonial Kenya experiences. This included the typically European and tourist varieties, such as tented safari, but gratefully, a predominance of local activities with indigenous friends as well.

So, for instance, my recollections of childhood include:

*In Nyeri (near Mount Kenya), herding small herds (5 to 25 animals) of foraging cows, goats and sheep alongside Kikuyu boys. I remember being near-obsessed with the long sticks the herd boys used, and hoarding a stash of herding sticks. For this blog’s relevance: It was boredom that drove me out of my house and to our 1-acre property boundary, where I initiated contact and friendship with passerby herd boys.

*My four years in Kisumu, a town bordering Lake Victoria, were the most formative ones for me; especially in terms of how fun-filled a “boring” life could be.

I slingshotted and fished with nets for Tilapia alongside my Luo friends (see Fly Fishing for Sheep and Slingshotting for ‘Ndeges’). We frequently played “Cops and Robbers” with my assortment of toy cap guns. One group would hide and the other would count to 100. The “counters” then shouted in Luo “wathe?” (ready?), to which frequently came the reply “podi” (not yet!).

A favorite game my Luo friends taught me I’ll call “bottle cap car racing.” It cost and utilized nothing more than discarded bottle caps from glass soda/beer bottles. We each found and jealously guarded (sometimes trading) our own collection of Fanta Orange, Coke, Sprite and even Tusker beer bottle caps. We made them “road and race worthy” by eliminating any unsightly dents or bulges by gentle hammering, and then rubbing them vigorously against a coarse, sandpaper-like surface. This made them smooth, slippery, and crazy fast.

We created “race tracks” of curves, banks and bumps in our gravel driveway by means of placing two hands together – much as you might to create a silhouette butterfly impression on a white wall – placing them palm down on the gravel, and with bulldozer maneuver pushing them along and through the gravel, thereby forming a 6 to 8-inch wide bottle cap race track. The caps “raced” by flick of the fingers propulsion (middle finger flicking out and away from the thumb). Like any game, you incurred penalty. For example, if your bottle cap flew outside the race track, or you hit another racer.

Other remembered (and memorable) collective activities motivated by periods of “boredom” from this period of life include making wire rally cars, replete with battery-powered headlamps (flashlight bulbs), gear shifts, and rubberized steering wheels.

A wire car similar to those my friends and I made.  Borrowed from arteilimitada2011.blogspot.com

A wire car similar to those my friends and I made. Borrowed from arteilimitada2011.blogspot.com

Also, making a two-room, A-frame structure of sticks in my family’s backyard. Finding large stacks of field grass (aka, grass thatch), securing them tightly to our stick structure to prevent rain seepage, and then overnighted with my Luo friends in “our house.”

*During high school we lived in Musoma, Tanzania for one year. I have to admit, finding meaning in boredom in a small, out-of-the-way lakeside town was a real challenge. Nevertheless, a fond memory from this brief and boring residence was sitting outside on a quilt with my parents and younger brother (and 2 dogs), and looking up at the near pitch-black, yet star-studded night sky and searching for the many crisscrossing satellites.

My walk down “boring” memory lane road spontaneously occurred this past week, when I came across select pictures of my own children, likewise exhibiting “boring” life moments. So “boring” that there’s seldom a week that passes, in which one or all three of my younger kids say something like, “I miss (South) Africa! I wish we still lived there.” See the following photographic evidence of the deprived long-term effects of no TV, no iPad, no Nintendo, no non-stop activities et cetera –

Foot race in a dry riverbed, alongside elephant dung!

Foot race in a dry riverbed, alongside elephant dung!

Free falling off a large riverbed rock.

Free falling off a large riverbed rock.

My youngest playing "office" on a broken iMac consigned to the garage.

Playing “office” on a broken iMac consigned to the garage.

Did you ever imagine an office chair with wheels could be so fun?

Did you ever imagine an office chair with wheels could be so fun?

Imaginative creation of a zoo in the "desert"

Imaginative creation of a zoo in the “desert”

I wish for you and yours the pleasures and longterm benefits of “boredom”!

1 Comment

Filed under Africa, Family, Life, Memories, Perspective

The Positive Power of Difference | Us + Them

I remember the wall that encased my third grade home in Kenya.  It was quarried rock, thinly plastered with cement, and as a security measure, injected along the top with jagged, multi-colored shards of glass.  I was sitting atop that wall one day (at a point void of glass!) when my family’s first of two pet Vervet monkeys, Penny, decided to join me, and then out of sheer pleasure at the prospect of terrorizing a young boy, bit my arm.  I screamed more in fear than pain, and shoved her off the 6 to 8 foot wall.

Glass as Crime Deterent

Glass as a crime deterrent

Aware that neighborhood, community and nation are rapidly changing toward a kaleidoscope of racial, ethnic, cultural and linguistic hues – and interspersed with varied degrees of crime – it’s easy and enticing to buy into the myth, marketing and politicking, which advocates that people and nations are predetermined to be in perpetual conflict and hostility with each other.

Such thought and argument utilizes fear of the unknown and different to persuade us that the best defense and antidote against inevitable change and conflict is an impenetrable barrier – or, as former Republican presidential candidates Herman Cain and Michele Bachman suggested – either an electrified fence or one that stretches the entire length of the Mexico/U.S. border.

A not uncommon residential security - Durban

A not uncommon residential security – Durban

It’s a modern-day circling the wagons scenario.  Confronted by a perceived or real threat, we erect barriers  to protect self, family and assets.  Sadly, we disregard the inevitable and historical fact that we are building nothing more lasting than structures of sand, which will not last beyond a spring tide of social discontent. Look no further for evidence than the Berlin Wall or France and the storming of the Bastille.

1989 - Fall of Berlin Wall

Fall of Berlin Wall, 1989

Walls are physical structures, yes, but they are also symbolic.  China’s Great Wall was built as a northern barrier against the threatening barbarian Huns.  Andrew Sinclair, however, noted that walls suggest “a mentality which still persists—the view of a world in which the limits between the civilized and the barbarian are exact and impassable.”  Today we might revise this “wall mentality” to express our longing for an impenetrable divide that guarantees personal protection.

Great Wall of China

Great Wall of China

What precipitated my thinking about walls and barriers, you ask?

Two things.

First, midpoint on my daily run are two separately owned houses for sale.  A distinctive of these two residences has been a shared, unpartitioned backyard.  What is now distinctive is that prior to sale, a high, dividing fence is being constructed that will effectively restrict one new homeowner’s access to the formerly shared swimming pool, as well as minimize social interaction.

The second precipitating factor? My own long-held thoughts on difference, well enunciated by Todd Pittinsky and his book Us + Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference.

I frequently voice – particularly post-senseless acts of mass violence – that despite their unconscionable and numbing reality, given a burgeoning global population and people’s access to firearms, as well as the pervasiveness of mental illness and socio-economic disparities, it’s a miracle many times more random acts of violence don’t occur.

It seems we individually, as societies, and “the media” conveniently overlook and under-report the positive dimensions of stories (the many examples of how people positively and daily relate to one another), focusing instead on telling and showing the macabre because that is what sells and excites social consciousness.

As Pittinsky observes, “We are letting the worst of the news become our underlying picture of us-and-them relations.  We know the negative power of difference very well, but we are barely acquainted with the positive power of difference.”

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

South African educators (+me) working together to improve kids lives.

This is exactly Pittinsky’s point.  Since the Holocaust and extending into the Civil Rights era, social science research has singularly focused on the negative – on hate and negative prejudice type studies.  Positive research and reporting on “liking of the other” (which he calls allophilia) is largely excluded.

Social sciences’ singular and myopic research on causes of and ways to eliminate or minimize the negative (hate/prejudice) has over the decades thoroughly and negatively saturated and shaped society at large (via education), especially government, military, business, education and civic leaders’ perceptions, attitudes, and responses to difference and “them.”

This overwhelming negative outlook has adversely affected societies at large because leaders and groups views of and approaches to difference and “the other” reflect an “us versus them” or an “us against them,” and seldom, if ever, a positive science of “us and them” or an “us plus them.”

Us + Them

Us + Them

There’s something wrong, Pittinsky notes, when all focus, effort, and expenditure is on tracking “hate back through generations while overlooking positive attitudes and actions that happen today, never mind seeking their distant roots or long-term effects.”

Take Africa for example.  Western coverage of the continent is dominated by news of genocide, dictatorial atrocities, and ethnic massacres.  Yet, Africa has an “estimated 2,035 linguistic groups and more than 3,000 ethnic groups.  It is not uncommon to find more than 20 ethnic groups in one country.  And yet, at any given moment, most Africans are not hating or fighting.  Why not?  We really don’t know.  It’s mostly the hate we study.”

In researching his book, Pittinsky found more than 200 published measures of hate and negative prejudice toward “the other” group, yet not a single measuring tool for constructing positive attitudes toward “the other.”

The Core of the Problem

The Core of the Problem

North Americans have at least two significant challenges ahead of us.  First, as Harvard’s Diana Eck states, “Simply open our eyes.  Discover America anew, and explore the many ways in which the new immigration has changed the religious (and cultural) landscape of our cities and towns, our neighborhoods and schools.

Secondly, strive to maintain our nation’s e pluribus unum (out of the many, one), given the twin facts that we’re the most religiously diverse nation in the world, yet also the most religiously (and culturally) illiterate.

religion-dm-500

Our economic prosperity, global dominance and geographical size has in the past minimized our “need” to initiate relationships or understanding of difference with the “other.”

Like South Africa, the United States is a rainbow nation of diversity and multiple cultures.  We need to discard/unlearn any and all notions that suggest people and nations are predestined and hard-wired for conflict and hostility, as Samuel Huntington’s popular book title suggests, The Clash of Civilizations.  For the passionately religious minded, this will require, in part, a cessation of bearing false witness against those different from oneself.

All it takes to begin reversing the centuries’-long cultural and religious ingrained notion that hostility and conflict are immutable aspects of our created differences, is to risk sharing in what Eck describes as “the common tasks of our civil society.”

If that is too risky or demanding a task, then share a cup of hot tea/coffee and a conversation with “the other” about shared memories of life and loss, perhaps during what Elizabeth Lesser calls, “Take ‘the other’ to lunch.” It would help communicate across cultural, political, economic and social divides, if you took along a few personal photographs to share, too.

We all, yet leaders, in particular, “Have the responsibility to understand and increase what we want (peaceful and productive multicultural societies), not just to understand and decrease what we don’t want (prejudice and hate).”

Leave a comment

Filed under Diversity, Perspective, Relationships

Till We (All) Have Faces

I wish it were possible to somehow insert an additional line into Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech –

“I have a dream that one day we will be a nation and communities of faces.”

A New York City speaker at a 2003 conference in Fort Worth, Texas, was asked if anything positive came from 9/11.  His response resonated with me.  He replied that if anything good came from 9/11, it was this:

For the first time ever, New York City’s 8 million residents became a “city with faces”—referencing the pictorial wall of remembrance, in which pictures of some of the 2,977 victims from more than 90 countries were posted by grieving friends and family members.

A collage of 9/11 victims' faces.

A collage of 9/11 victims’ faces.

I’ve thought a lot about faces and memories of faces since that evening.

As a child, church was seldom an option for me and my siblings. Living in Kenya this frequently meant we attended a remote, mud-bricked and mabati (tin) roofed church.

In early 70’s Kenya, particularly in rural areas, black-white encounters were still relatively uncommon.  As a young boy, who would rather be fishing or playing ball, it was bad enough I had to attend an hours’ long service.  Time was made worse by Kenyan children’s intense curiosity with my white person’s hair and skin.

Typically my parents would allow my siblings and me to leave mid-service and either play outside or sit in the car and read a book.  Sitting in the car was a reprieve from listening to long, Swahili-Luo translated sermons, but it came with a price – persistent children’s faces, often streaked with snot and pestering flies, pressed against the car’s window, and when left partially open for air, young black arms sneaking in for quick touches, squeezes, followed by giggles.

An Afghan child looking into a car

An Afghan child looking into a car

These many years later I sometimes wonder why that bothered me so?  After all, my best friends back home in the town of Kisumu were Oginga and Ogoro – Luo boys, themselves.

Were the frequently un-wiped noses and bloated malnourished stomachs simply too much of a discomfiture for an 10 or 11-year-old boy? Would my discomfort be mediated had I known their names and shared more in common with their lives? Would I have been as bothered if they were young white arms reaching in? Perhaps it was the proximity of these young faces.  They were within easy arm-reach, too close for comfort.  Too intimate.

I don’t know if it’s “natural” or not – it is disrespectful and shameful – but have you noticed how people of one race tend to view people of another race in a one-size, “all look-alike” category?  That is – among whites, anyway, it’s quite common to hear the following type comments about Asians, for instance: “I can’t easily tell them apart! They all look so alike.” or “I just call them by their ‘English names’ because their mother tongue names are too difficult to remember, let alone pronounce.”

During my post-graduate research I came across the story of a white Union army commander, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was assigned the task of leading an all-black regiment.  He confessed that initially he was unable to distinguish the soldiers from each other, yet “as one grows more acquainted with the men, their individualities emerge; and I find first their faces, then their characters, to be as distinct as those of whites.”

black soldiers

Similarly, an American missionary woman, Carrie L. Goodenough, stated of the Zulus in a letter of 1883 from Natal, South Africa, “At first I thought their faces all looked alike, but I see difference now, both in features and expression; and after one is accustomed to the Zulu type of features, many of the faces are really pleasing.”

Culture and media have combined to promote a sense that beauty is outward.

What about the many, however, who are born without a model or actor’s face, or even worse, perhaps, born with an attractive face and it’s then yanked away by an act of violence or disease?  Many U.S. soldiers have experienced acute facial disfigurement due to IEDs.

One publicized example of disfigurement is Charla Nash, a 56-year-old single mother, who, several years ago, went to help a friend contain a pet chimpanzee and ended up having her face and hands ripped off.  She later underwent a complete facial transplant.

ap_charla_nash_jp_120628_wblog

I just googled “the wonders of the face” and got nothing, zero.  Just a listing of links to various “wonders,” including the seven wonders of the world, the seven wonders of Egypt, wonders of Africa, et cetera.

Doesn’t anyone but me think the face should be classified as an eighth wonder of the world – even those disfigured?

I realize the face is quite daunting and intimidating if you prefer to live a life void of intimacy, which men, in particular, might opt for (but only as an act of bravado). Men such as Tommy Lee Jones’s character “Arnold” in the movie Hope Springs; the story of a 31-year marriage in an acute state of disrepair.

Arnold and Kay (Meryl Streep) sleep in separate bedrooms. They tell their last-ditch, marriage saving therapist, Steve Carell, that they last had sex five years back.  Carell assigns them homework, one of which being to have sex.

It’s painful to watch, but eventually lying on a rug beside a crackling fire they almost succeed in culminating a rekindled passion.  Unfortunately the moment and mood is spoilt by Arnold’s inability and unwillingness to look directly into his wife’s eyes and face while making love – apparently a long-held, intimacy avoiding trait, which is almost the undoing of their marriage.

I simply felt like drawing attention to “faces” today.  I don’t know what your particular “take away” will be from this blog, if anything, but I hope you risk looking more deeply and intimately at and into the faces of friends, family, and even day-to-day acquaintances, whether it’s the check-out person at your local grocer, your librarian, teacher, colleague, even that person who frustrates you to the 100th degree.

Perhaps like Arnold, if you persist in trying and looking into the faces of those within your concentric circles of relationships, you’ll experience a newfound, even heightened sense of respect and appreciation for the others in your life – maybe even call them by name.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Life, Memories, Perspective, Relationships

Calling a Spade a Spade | Church Mission Trips – More Self-Serving Than Other-Serving

Last week I heard of a local church planning several mission trips to East Africa in 2013.  As a child of missionaries, myself, I’d like to speak to the immense popularity of mission trips among “Christian America,” recognizing and risking that readers might take exception to my perspective.

Mission trip promotional poster

Typical mission trip promotional poster

I acknowledge that this is not a thorough and researched treatise, as it were, on church mission trips. Rather, it’s a short, somewhat atypical perspective, which I hope will provoke at least a modest questioning and rethinking about mission trips.  I do not disparage any and all “good,” which might result from such trips, but I’m unconvinced “the good” outweighs “the bad.”

It seems to me that the underlying, oft-times unconscious purpose of many, if not most church mission trips, especially short-term and itinerant ones, could be typified as: 1) Self-enrichment; 2) Finding self and a life meaning; 3) Growing my church and “the kingdom”; and 4) Holiday-with-a-social-service add-on.  These, in contrast to an altruism of commitment to the well-being of “the different and distant others,” who according to Desmond Tutu, we should consider as “family.”

Jan Nederveen Pieterse, professor of global studies and sociology in the Global and International Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, as well as author of White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture, made two observations about Christian missions, which I agree with.  Although he wrote in the past tense of the 19th and early 20th centuries, regrettably, I believe little has changed today.

whiteonblack

First, missions were (are) engaged in, at least in part, as a rejuvenating cure for the home church’s faltering spiritual and numerical decline.

Secondly, fund-raising for overseas’ mission ventures was (is) dependent upon conveying a “demonized image of the heathen under the devil’s spell, and on the other the romanticized self-image of the missionary in the role of saviour.”

The two stereotypes were (are) interdependent, in that, “The glory as well as the fund-raising of the missions were (are) in direct proportion to the degradation and diabolism of the heathen.”  Btw – I could easily corroborate the continued practice of this second point simply by sharing verbatim from several recent emails in my Inbox.

My postgraduate mentor was insistent in telling students that language is formative in shaping people’s perceptions, attitudes and actions toward people different.  For example, he especially disliked the term “non-Christian,” because it implies a standard of value measurement, in which “Christian” is the absolute or sole source of good and truth, while any and all things and persons “non-Christian” are less-than. Instead, when possible, use an expression like “people of other faiths.”

Me and my South African mentor, John N. Jonsson

Me and my South African mentor, John N. Jonsson

In the same spirit, he warned students not to use “uneducated” in their semester research papers, because that too communicates a less-than-me attitude toward someone different and less economically fortunate.  Rather, in referring to a person(s) who lacks a school education, say something like “s/he lacks formal education,” but don’t ever say “uneducated” because many “uneducated people” of the world are without question some of its most intellectually brightest.

One example is the Khoi and Bushmen of Southern Africa’s Khoisan language compared to the relative simplicity of the English language. An early explorer’s impressions of the Khoisan language, as taken from Lancaster’s Voyages, states, “Their speech is wholly uttered through the throat, and they cluck with their tongues in such sort, that in seven weeks which we remained here in this place, the sharpest wit among us could not learn a word of their language.”

A San family

A San family

Many recipients of “Christian humanitarianism” of the 18th through 21st centuries, experienced “mission” in a less-than self and culture-affirming manner (*the enmeshing of Bible and Christianity with imperialism, colonialism, and present-day globalization is well-known, and succinctly depicted by historian Brian Stanley’s book The Bible and The Flag) .  

Bible&Flag

The coupling of so-called “good news” and reigning political and economic power is evident in a well-known statement attributed to Kenya’s independence fighters, the Mau Mau, “Formerly we owned the land and the whites had the Gospel. Then the missionaries came, they taught us to pray and close our eyes, and in the meantime the whites took our land. Now we have the Gospel and they have the land.”  

Despite advocates who argue that “mission” is a neutral term, citing its popular and frequent use in the corporate world of “mission statements,” from my perspective “mission” persists in conveying power, control and militaristic imagery, and communicates the idea that somethings or someones need “saving” or “saving from.”  It’s a tacit admission that “they” and “them” need “us” in order to experience a happy and fulfilled life, find God, and obtain a “get-into-heaven” pass code.

If you question my evidence for the historical and continued militaristic conveyance of “Christian missions,” spend some time researching church and missionary archives such as the Congregationalists’ American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  You will observe that young boys and girls were organized into local “Mission Crusader” clubs, all with the express purpose of “fighting for Christ and His Kingdom . . . against the Evil one and his Kingdom.”  In the mid-1840s, the analogy of Napoleon’s conquests was utilized as incitement and preparation for overseas missions.

American Board missionary to Syria, Eli Smith, in an address to members of the Society of Inquiry stated, “They forget that the object for which the church is organized, is not so much the maintenance of fortresses already taken and garrisoned, as for universal conquest.”  Later he described foreign missions as a “foreign war.”  Furthermore, each issue of The Missionary Herald (mission magazine) contained sections entitled “Recent Intelligence” and “Foreign Intelligence.”

Although a missionary was supposed to be a spiritual herald of good news and an ambassador of God’s love, his primary vocation, according to the American Board’s own “mission commander,” Rufus Anderson, was as soldier to the cross.  Their order was to “make conquests, and to go on . . . ‘conquering and to conquer’. . . the idea of continued conquest is fundamental in missions to the heathen.” Elsewhere he wrote that the “idea of spiritual conquest is the predominant and characteristic idea of the [mission] enterprise.”

bibleflag

Concluding thought:

What prompted this blog’s topic, and what disturbs me most about the popularity and fondness of Americans for overseas mission trips, is the absence of much, if any, suggestion or emphasis on reciprocity – i.e., the idea that American Christians need “them” (the religious and cultural “different others” targeted by mission groups) as much as, if not more than they need us.

Church mission trips, from my perspective – with some exceptions, of course – persist in demonstrating and communicating a singular, single stream attitude and perspective: We save them, We help them, We give to them, We pray for them, We teach them, We heal them, et cetera.

As former Columbia University professor, Edward Said, persuasively argued in his book Orientalism, identity is a construction, and as such, it is “bound up with the disposition of power and powerlessness in each society.”  What I have discovered through years of exposure to mission groups is that by and large Christian Americans are seldom conscious of how entwined with their nation’s own Super Power status their faith and worldview is.

It is disappointing that churches are quick to organize, promote and engage in overseas mission trips, yet upon questioning them, one often finds their awareness of and involvement in their very own residential backyards (communities/cities) unknown and unmet. The movie Blind Side depicted this side of Christian America, in that many of Leigh Anne Tuohy’s (Sandra Bullock) rich friends were aghast that she involved her family in the life of a young black man from a poor, crime ridden section of the city.

Meanwhile mission trips and their participants repeatedly convey to the world’s poor and struggling people of Americans’ economic and political power / dominance by spending billions of dollars on airfare, visas, travel inoculations, 3 to 5 star hotel accommodation, food, travel accessories, clothing, and most times a final several days’ “safari” – a great percentage of which monies, could arguably have been spent on direct aid to people and communities in need.

I’m not necessarily advocating eliminating church mission trips.  But I do think, at minimum, they should be re-named for what they are.

Mission trip participants boarding a plane

Mission trip participants boarding a plane

8 Comments

Filed under Africa, Culture and Africa, Mentor, Perspective, Relationships, Religion and Faith

Men Holding Hands | A Tribute to an African Friend

Let me tell you about my former friend Peter Khosa.

Peter was a refugee from Mozambique, who I first met in 1990 in the small town of Malamulele, in what is now Limpopo Province, South Africa.  Peter was managing a non-profit food relief project for thousands of people fleeing Mozambique’s civil war.

Peter distributing food to two refugee children.

Peter Khosa distributing food to two children.

Peter’s English was imperfect, yet eloquent.  He was the hardest worker I have known.  In order to support his immediate family of six, plus, family in Mozambique, including parents, Peter bought an old 4×4 bakkie (pick-up truck), and made weekly trips of 900+ kilometers to purchase bulk fresh produce, including cabbage, onions, potatoes and citrus.  His wife, Rosa, then sold the produce for minimal profit in two local open-air markets.

Peter & Rosa's "bakkie" (truck) and vegetable stall.

Peter & Rosa’s “bakkie” (truck) and vegetable stall.

 

Peter's family

Peter’s family

Peter died in 2007 of brain cancer – a disease he fought for five years.

Peter Khoza

Peter

I take this opportunity to share how Peter affected and shaped my life.  I am a bi-cultural person, who was born in the United States, yet grew up in Africa.

In addition to his ethos of hard work, Peter was extremely truthful and candid.  He didn’t put on airs of niceness merely to please (or deceive). Two cases in point:

One day in Thohoyandou, Venda, my wife and I had several unexpected visitors.  Offering hot tea or coffee, plus something to eat, was a Venda cultural expression of respect to visitors, and my wife did this with our three Venda male visitors.  Not long into their visit, Peter also unexpectedly showed up.  After greetings were exchanged my wife brought Peter something to drink and eat without asking, but upon offer, Peter politely declined.

tea

His “cheeky candor” became a topic of light-hearted discussion among our Venda guests. “Oh, but you have to accept it, Peter!  We have just ‘trained’ Mme a Daniel (mother of Daniel) in the ways of our culture and now you’ve gone and sown confusion in her mind.”  Peter responded, “But I’m not hungry!  Why should I accept and waste food and drink when I have no need?”  Discussion continued over cultural differences between such close neighbors as the Venda and Shangaan people.

A final example of Peter’s candor.  One late afternoon he, along with his wife and a friend of hers, arrived unannounced at our house.  I had spent the afternoon making what I believed to be an excellent potjiekos (=small pot food), an Afrikaaner “stew” cooked in a three-legged, cast iron, Dutch rounded potjie (cooking pot), which is slow-cooked on an open fire.  A hint of what is to come . . . I had been taught the “art” of potjiekos cooking from a fellow American, although in fairness to him, my culinary skills should not be blamed on anyone but myself.

On this occasion I recall making a potjiekos of chunks of fresh beef, white onions, potatoes, slices of mango, and a generous dash of red wine.  A secret of good potjiekos – so I’m told – is in choosing the right ingredients, on correctly layering the ingredients, and on slow and precise cooking.

A potjie on an open fire.

A potjie on an open fire.

We invited our guests in, and despite their insistence that they were not in great need of food, I served them my “delicious” potjiekos, anyway.  My wife and I then sat across from them at the dining table.  We engaged in conversation, all the while I kept expecting them to comment on how delicious my potjiekos was.  Affirmation never came. Food consumed, they excused themselves.

We walked them to the front gate and their bakkie.  As they were driving off and we were waving, Peter suddenly did a 360-degree turn.  He drove up alongside us, stopped, rolled down his window, placed his hand on my arm, and smilingly stated, “My friend, when you come to my house I will teach you how to cook!”  With that he rolled the window up and drove off into the darkening night, leaving a cloud of fine red Venda dust in his wake.  He was true to his word.  Another day, another time, he made me Portuguese style food, including a large steak, topped with two or three medium fried eggs, served with a generous portion of “chips” (french fries), a side salad, and a large glass of Coke.

A Portuguese meal similar to what Peter fed me.

A Portuguese meal similar to what Peter fed me.

In addition to Peter’s candor, what some might mistake for impoliteness, he also frequently demonstrated affection and vulnerability.

One time I spent several nights at Peter and Rosa’s house. One evening, just prior to dinner, he suggested we take a walk in the neighborhood.  As to its relevance, you decide, but know that Malamulele is mostly, if not entirely, a “black town.”  Its city center consisted of a few small shops and cafes. Neighborhoods included a mixture of face-brick homes with tiled roofs, to rural looking thatched rondavels. Needless to say, a white man walking in the community, while not unheard of, was not common.

"Three Rondavels" in Mpumalanga Province, adjacent to Limpopo

“Three Rondavels” in Mpumalanga Province, adjacent to Limpopo

At some point during our stroll, and as Peter pointed out different features of his community to me, several fingers of one hand softly held my own.  It was then him leading me around the neighborhood.

Black,+white+handshake+hands

I’m as “American male” as the next person, and it took a few seconds or minutes, I can’t say exactly which, before I was able to come to terms with this newfound, and highly cultural “holding hands experience.”  After my inner macho man-ness was convinced that the experience did not awaken any latent gay feelings of pleasure, and that no bystanders were aghast, I actually appreciated the feeling that came from knowing Peter took my hand because he felt a close kinship with me – that I had become to him like a brother and family.  Holding hands then became to me something of a badge of honor.

Concluding thought:

All of this is to say . . . I miss close friendships and “connectedness” like what I shared with Peter.  A friend who is kind yet candid, who offers you his best hospitality and troubles himself to walk the neighborhood with you, taking your hand, and showing you what you might not otherwise have seen or experienced.

I’m almost three years into Austin residency and I have yet to feel much connection to this city and its people.  I’m sure the fault is shared by me.

Initially, and as a newcomer, I sought some measure of connection through the tradition I grew up in, that is, church and the Christian community.  In those faith communities my family and I frequented, I did find “nice” people, yet my family’s experience suggests one becomes an “insider” by coming to them, reaching out to them, and it helps significantly if you have disposable and leisure income, which can enable you to participate fully in all social and “ministry” events.

I find it somewhat ironic that in what many people call “Christian America,” my family have had as many if not more invitations to dinners, parties, house dedications, and even offers of job networking from Hindu and Muslim neighbors and friends, including our girls’ school friends’ families, than from full-time pastoral staff of my own faith tradition or members. Obviously, there are a few exceptions to this generalization.

 

8 Comments

Filed under Culture and Africa, Life, Loss, Memories, Mentor, Perspective, Relationships, Religion and Faith, Uncategorized

Breast-Feeding, Elephant Ears, and Basking Lizards | Meanderings of an American-African Mind

The mind is an amazing thing.

Do you know what I mean?

One minute you’re sitting alone or with others, thinking or discussing one thing or the other, and the next thing you know a random, sub-conscious word, thought or optical image diverts your thought processes to what appears on the surface to be an absurdly different topic altogether.

A case in point:

It’s a sunny yet relatively “cold” day today in Austin – high of 61F.  I’ve placed my seedling tray of tomato plants just behind our all-glass front door, so they will capture the light and warmth of the sun.  As I bent over to position them in full sunlight, I felt the morning sun’s warmth refracted through the door and on to my face, neck and arms.  The warmth and its soothing sensation, combined a moment later with the pleasured taste of a Starbuck’s Americano, drunk while sitting and looking out on an awakening neighborhood, somehow combined to trigger distant yet still close-at-hand memories.

I remember numerous happy childhood days at Kisumu’s Nyanza Club swimming pool, particularly, how good it felt (and feels) climbing out of cold water, then immediately lying face down on a sun-warmed border of the pool. 

From 3rd Wimpy Kid Movie

Diary of A Wimpy Kid: Dog Days

Do you have similar recollections? Can you feel even as you read these words the sun warming your cold body, head to toes?  

This remembrance somehow linked to and triggered in my mind an idiomatic Venda expression for “I need to go to the toilet,” of which, the relevance to water and sun will soon be evident.

One day I asked my Venda tutor, “How do I tell someone, ‘Please excuse me, I need to go to the toilet?'” He thought a minute then replied, “In formal Venda you simply say, ‘Ndi khou toda u di thusa,’ which simply translates ‘I need to help myself.'”  But, he said, “If you want to speak ‘deep Venda’ then you can say, ‘Ndi khou toda u kumbedza tswina,’ which roughly translates ‘I need to blind a lizard.'”

lizard

As you likely are doing now, I chuckled, yet think about its contextual accuracy.  Most Venda people still rely on foot power and foot paths.  Distances are quite far, and if you’ve traveled abroad, you know that relieving oneself outdoors seldom conveys any similar degree of uncouthness as it does in the United States. Given Venda’s proximity to the Tropic of Capricorn, imagine that it’s a 39-degree Celsius day. You’re walking along a foot path when morning tea catches up with you.  You stop to relieve yourself in the shelter of a rocky and sparsely vegetated hill, and lying just before you is a basking lizard!

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Tropic of Capricorn marker, north of Polokwane, Limpopo.

Regrettably, all language lessons were not that painless.

The most embarrassingly painful Venda language learning remembrance for my wife and me was over the simplest and most frequently used daily expression – “hello.”

Our mistake?  Young when we arrived in South Africa, we asked an older – you would think more informed – white colleague how to greet, instead of asking someone from Venda.  As our colleague drove us to Venda from Johannesburg, a then six-hour drive, he told us, “Oh, it’s easy.  If it’s a man you say ‘Ndaa’ (masculine tone). If it’s a woman you say, ‘Aaah’ (feminine tone).”  So for the first few weeks, if not months, every man and every woman we greeted with either an “Ndaa” or “Aaah.”  Regrettably, what our colleague neglected to tell us is that only men greet with “Ndaa” and only women greet with “Aaah.”

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

Venda woman displaying most respectful posture in greeting.

We each received many strange and smiled looks when we greeted people.

My most painful related remembrance is of a woman I gave a lift to.  As she entered my bakkie (equivalent to a pick-up truck), I articulated in my most feminine tone and pitch, “Aaa!”  She must have been desperate for a ride, because rather than leaping out the window, she chose to remain with this seemingly crazed white taxi driver.

My wife’s faux pas was more painful, perhaps.  Soon after our arrival in Venda there was a peaceful coup, and our immediate neighbor in Block G, Thohoyandou (=head of the elephant), a general in Venda’s “air force,” Gabriel Ramushwana became president.  Rather then relocate from Block G to the substantial presidential compound situated mid-point between Thohoyandou and the white suburb of Sibasa on the hill, he chose to live with and among his people (there’s a lesson in there for all current and want-to-be politicians).

It wasn’t long, then, before the president’s yard was fitted with razor wire and a 24-hour military presence, much to our young son’s pleasure.  As President Ramushwana was exiting his premises one morning, and my wife was simultaneously closing our gate, she greeted him properly through his open car window.  It caused him to stop and respond kindly, “I see you’ve learned to greet properly in Venda!”

SA's 9 provinces & a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

South Africa’s nine provinces and a rough outline of languages spoken in each.

An important thing you should know about many, if not most of South Africa’s eleven official languages. They are tonal. Practically, this means one word can have multiple meanings depending upon tone and inflection. An example in Venda: “thoho” can communicate either “head” or “monkey.”

Vervet monkey

Vervet monkey

A personal example of a language miscue related to tone and inflection: It was a hot summer day, and as I arrived at my meeting destination a group of Venda ladies were sitting under a large shade tree.  We exchanged greetings, after which one of the group said something incoherent to me.  I attempted to say, “I didn’t hear well or clearly.” They all immediately yet politely stifled laughter, which, of course, told me my language effort failed miserably.  One of the ladies rose to her feet, walked over to me, and politely told me, “You have just told us that you have big ears like an elephant!”

censoredbreastfeed

A more U.S./European view of breast-feeding – taboo

Speaking of women and language learning . . . my mind again, as if it operates independently from intentional thought, skipped to a different page of memories.  This time a page of memories related to two breast-feeding incidents. Breasts and breast-feeding are viewed in wholesome (pure) and healthy terms in Venda, as in most parts Africa.

African woman breast feeding

African woman breast-feeding

Our arrival in Block G, Thohoyandou, Venda in early November, 1989, caused quite a stir, I’m certain.  The reason being: South Africa, even its so-called “independent” black homelands, existed within a canopy of legislated segregation or apartheid. It was more scandalous than normal for races to mix.  Yet here we were a young, white couple setting up home in what was effectively a new “black housing development.”  Within days of arrival, welcoming guests arrived at our front gate, including two pastors of local churches and their wives – one of whom, had recently given birth.

My wife quickly learned the cultural role of providing “tea” and some form of “pudding” (sweet pastry).  Midway through their visit, the one pastor’s wife decided it was time to feed her newborn.  This was no big event, except for two complicating factors:  In likely her first-ever visit to a white person’s house she had worn her best dress, which was beautiful, yet impractical for nursing purposes, in that, the neck of the dress extended up near her clavicle, making “breast extraction” near impossible.  Secondly, she was a very buxom woman.  These factors did not deter her from trying, though – and repeatedly so!  Given that we all were sharing a small living room space, her efforts and failures became increasingly pronounced as time went on.  Much to all of our relief, I’m sure, the senior pastor finally voiced our discomfiture and what was evident to all of us – “Shame, she’s having trouble getting the pipe out.”

A final humorous story related to language and breast-feeding.  My wife grew up in the Dominican Republic, and is fluent in Spanish (and German).  Inspired by a college professor, she chose – actually, we chose – to raise all five of our children bilingual.  Upon arrival in Venda our eldest, a boy, was a year old.  After two years living in Venda and among the Venda people, he had learned a lot, but also “absorbed” a lot – specifically, the reality that many infants and small children received milk from their mothers’ breasts.

One evening we invited an elderly American couple over for dinner.  They were assisting in the management of a relief project at the time.  She, like the pastor’s wife, was quite a buxom woman, and sitting immediately to the right of my son at the dining table, he couldn’t help but notice.  Given the sights and cultural experiences he had absorbed to that point, he very innocently verbalized midway through dinner to my wife – fortunately in Spanish – “Does she have milk?”  It was obviously a moment of great discomfiture for my wife, but fortunately an anonymously embarrassing moment, which today we remember with great laughter.

Concluding thought: 

Meandering minds and their on-the-surface incoherent and dissonant linkages with past memories and associations frequently result in fond and kind remembrances of happier and simpler periods, events and relationships in life, which if we’ll allow them, just might warm up, encourage, what to that point in time or day we might tend to label as struggle, despondency, heartache or melancholy.

2 Comments

Filed under Culture and Africa, Life, Memories, Perspective, Relationships