When Missionaries Think They Know Everything

by Amy Medina on July 4, 2017

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.

We assume that we could never be that person, yet that’s just the problem.  We ignore the fact that despite the pedestals we have been put on, we actually aren’t saints; that signing on to missionary work didn’t actually get rid of our sin.  We are, by nature, prideful and arrogant.  Insisting that we aren’t just allows it to come out in unintended ways.  The first step to rooting out sin in our lives is by acknowledging that it’s there—in all of us.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we put on rose-colored glasses and pretend that our frustrations don’t exist.  Inefficiency, foolishness, and downright evil exist in every culture, in various forms.  I’m saying we need to check our attitude towards these things.  Are we holding ourselves above the culture as if we’re better than it, and insisting we have all the answers?  Or are we sitting down in the dust next to our local friends, learning to love the things they love and experience the frustrations they feel within their culture?

Marilyn Gardner writes, “Cultural humility demands self-evaluation and critique, constant effort to understand the view of another before we react.  It requires that we recognize our tendency toward cultural superiority. Cultural humility gives up the role of expert, instead seeing ourselves as students of our host culture.  It puts us on our knees, the best posture possible for learning.”

We need to ask ourselves:

  • Would I make this complaint if I knew a government official would hear it?
  • Would I tell this joke about my host country in front of my local friends?
  • Would I write this Facebook post if I knew the pastor of my local church would see it?

And what about my own kids?  How are my children going to perceive our host country if they absorb my attitude about the government, the police, the mechanic, the drivers on the road?  Are they learning from my words and actions to show grace or to display arrogance?

Even if you think you are just kidding around, be careful.  Obviously, even local people complain about certain things in their country and even make jokes.  But remember that playground rule when you were a kid:  It’s okay for you to tease your little sister, but if your friend does it, then “them’s fighting words.”  Even if your local friends disparage or mock aspects of their own culture, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to do it too.  We are guests in our host countries.  Let’s be considerate ones.

Of course, there’s a fine line here.  If I see a Facebook post that says, “Saw a baboon on the back of a motorcycle today. #TIA,” well, that’s fun all around.  No problem there.  But keep in mind that it may take you many years before you know where that line is.  And the longer I’ve lived overseas, the further I back up from that line.  I continue to realize how much I have to learn.  As I understand more and more that I don’t have the answers, the more deeply I appreciate the differences that I originally may have mocked.

In humility, consider others better than yourselves.

Even if it means giving the benefit of the doubt to two guys shoveling sand.

 

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About Amy Medina

Amy Medina has spent almost half her life in Africa, both as an MK in Liberia and now in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, since 2001. Living in tropical Africa has helped her perfect the fine art of sweating, but she also loves teaching, cooking, and hospitality. She and her husband worked many years with TCKs and now are involved with theological training. They also adopted four amazing Tanzanian kids along the way. Amy blogs regularly at www.gilandamy.blogspot.com.
  • Tonia

    This is so good! I have learned so much from my host culture in the last 11 years, yes, some things are done differently. Different doesn’t equal wrong.

    • Amy Medina

      Glad you can resonate, Tonia!

  • Nikole Opiyo

    Spot on, Amy. I need forgiveness for the times I have done that. I’m learning to go slowly, listen, and seek to understand first.

    • Amy Medina

      Amen!

  • Researcher

    I think we can use #TIA as long as we are fair about it. Here are some examples.
    I was sick and neighbours brought me food and watched the children #TIA
    I was checking out at a large supermarket and the cashier seeing my boxes of frozen blueberries said that I could get fresh ones at the market #TIRom
    I visited a family that by Western standards had nothing but they were so generous and hospitable #TIA
    My car broke down and I was walking to the next village. I met women going the other direction to get water. They were curious about this foreigner walking a dirt road with no vehicle, carrying nothing. We did not have a language in common but then I remembered how to say “makina finish”. They mourned with me. #TIA
    How about being fair about medical costs and insurance,
    I got sick in the USA and went to the emergency room. The cost was US$10,000. #TIUSA
    I was hospitalised 4 times in the last 18 months and my cost was nothing. #TIRom

    • Amy Medina

      Absolutely.
      Love it.

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