By Dave Parker
I began what I thought would be a long career as a single male missionary in 2002. My years of education and preparation got me through many challenges, but when I arrived, I was not ready for the impact of cultural gender roles.
I soon learned I was an enigma in the culture. At the age of 32, most men are married and have children. So to arrive single, white and rich (according to their economy) set me up for some interesting interactions. It was assumed I could bless my neighborhood. It was taken for granted in the markets I could pay more. And everyone assumed I needed help finding a wife.
One of the staples in West Africa is rice and sauce. Vendors typically place themselves under large mango trees. They have spent the morning cooking rice and sauce over wood fires. For the equivalent of 25 cents, you could purchase a heaping plate of rice and sauce. So being poor (by American standards), it was a great bargain.
There was a mango tree outside the gate where I worked. Each day, the nationals who were constructing our new office building would gather to eat. I often joined them, but I noticed the guys were going out earlier and earlier, while I ate at noon. Often the rice and sauce was gone when I arrived. What happened next should have been a yellow flag.
The vendor began keeping a plate for me so I could eat at noon. This meant the two of us were alone while I ate — a cultural signal for a different kind of relationship. Her French was poor, and I barely knew more than greetings in her language. We smiled at each other a lot.
I came to realize she wanted to marry me, despite the fact that she was already married. I met her husband one day, and he seemed to be OK with that arrangement. She began pressuring me with family concerns. I discussed all of this with my supervisor, and it was clear I wouldn’t be able to marry any Africans. I explained this to my new friend. She soon left to be near her aging mother, and I learned an important lesson in culture and communication.
I had other marriage proposals, sometimes as direct as an old man pointing at some women nearby and asking whether I wanted to marry either of them. Sometimes when I was out with colleagues, nationals would hint that I should marry one of them. I handled these as delicately as I could.
I tell this story to illustrate the importance of understanding the culture of those you serve. Learn about cultural cues and taboos you will likely encounter from your experienced teammates. Knowledge in advance is far better than learning from a mistake or misunderstanding later.