You’re living/traveling abroad and a complete stranger approaches you while you’re walking down the street. He/she is extremely eager to get to know you, and the fact that he/she speaks English makes the possibility of a friendship more likely. Not knowing many other people (or the local language), you decide to reach out to this person to make a connection, having no idea if this will end up being a legitimate friendship or merely one of convenience for the other person.
Living in another country can be a very eye-opening and rewarding experience, but it also presents a whole new set of challenges. You are immediately plunged into a different set of customs and rules, and if that isn’t enough to make your head spin, you are forced to learn the art of interpersonal relationships. The dynamic of these relationships can be unfamiliar and can sometimes even become awkward.
Whenever I travel abroad, I am almost always in the company of locals I know and trust who can take me around to the nice places, steer me away from the not-so-nice ones, and serve as a translator if I have difficulties with the language. Even in situations like a short-term mission, you don’t have to worry so much because you are only around for a few weeks and, for the most part, you are kept in a protective zone by your hosts. A long-term mission is another story because it is impossible to have a local on-hand at all times to accompany you on your forays into the community and be there if you need a translator. You will need to be on your own at some point and when that happens, it’s better to know all you can about the culture you’re entering.
In Matthew 10:16, Jesus tells His disciples, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” One of the messages here is to not let your guard down and allow others to take advantage of you (wise as serpents), and when someone does take advantage of you or otherwise wrongs you, it is important to not seek retribution (harmless as doves).
When I arrived in Africa last July, I lacked the wisdom of a serpent. I was so focused on not making a negative first impression that I would be kind and open to every person I met. I had to rely on my new hosts to give me the “African perspective” of how things operate. One of my close African friends told me that I was being “too nice” and that I should keep my guard up wherever I go and not always be so trusting. This adjustment phase (which is still going on and will most likely continue for the duration of my term) involves setting boundaries for friends, acquaintances, and people who may greet you in passing on the street. The trick is being able to discern who the wolves are and not blocking out the sheep.
The hypothetical situation I posed at the beginning actually did happen to me when I was still living in Dar es Salaam. I was walking from the Salvation Army compound to an outdoor restaurant just up the road one evening when I saw a very tall guy dressed in shorts and a t-shirt approaching me. Even before he reached me, he was greeting me like we were old friends. He then started speaking to me in English without even hearing me say a word. He told me his name was Apollo and that he was a soldier in the Tanzanian Army. He was on his way out of the neighboring compound where he had been playing basketball. I was intrigued by him, so I decided to invite him to join me for dinner. We had a nice conversation, and my inner voice confirmed that he wasn’t a threat. On a subsequent meeting with Apollo, I invited him to come back to the Salvation Army compound with me so we could watch a movie. As soon as we got to the gate, the person who was guarding (someone I knew well) refused to let Apollo enter. I thought this a bit extreme, but the guard later told me that it’s generally not a good idea to let a stranger into your home. The guard’s explanation was this: the stranger may be a thief who will, upon seeing the possessions in your home, come back later to steal them. Even if the stranger isn’t a thief, there is still a chance that his findings in your home will be made public. For example, if he sees that you have a nice laptop, he may tell his friends about what a cool laptop you have. Even if this is done innocently, those friends may tell other friends, and so on, until someone finds out who may want to acquire your laptop illegally.
Another scenario: I try to take a walk into town every day, both to get exercise and to practice my Swahili. Bukoba being on the small side of urban centers, I will often run into someone I know or someone I don’t know who wants to be friendly. Usually, at some point in the conversation, I will be asked where I’m going or even where I live. Eight months ago, I would have answered those questions directly. I have since learned that I don’t need to volunteer specific information and that it’s often better to be vague. “Oh, I’m just walking around to get exercise” or “I live near the Orthodox Church.” The reality is that anyone who really wants to know where I live can easily find out. We live on a busy street and people see me come and go at different times of the day. However, I’ve been told that volunteering that information even to someone you think you know well can have results very similar to the previous situation.
I’m sure that the average Tanzanian goes through the same relationship-forming growing pains that we missionaries do, but the fact that we are obvious outsiders and on a different socioeconomic level makes us more noticeable. No matter how much we tell people that we don’t have a lot of money and are trying to live like Tanzanians, we are still on a completely different playing field, and that makes it all the more important that we be “wise as serpents.”
The flip side of this is becoming too distant and not letting anyone get too close to you. This may prevent someone from taking advantage of you, but it also defeats the whole purpose of mission work. So far, I have been blessed to be surrounded by sheep, but that doesn’t mean wolves won’t try to sneak in here and there. I have been struggling with how best to respond to those wolves. It is important to set boundaries and be firm when necessary, but I have two things working against me. One is the lack of anonymity (see previous paragraph). The other is the fact that I am being watched in everything I do–by fellow missionaries, by the people in my social circles, and by complete strangers. If I let my emotions get the best of me and lash out at someone, whether verbally or physically, then it won’t be very long before everyone knows about it. On the one hand, that may be good to detract other wolves from crossing the line, but it could also carry a stigma that may negatively (and irreversibly) affect my mission.
The nature of African relationships is different from that of American relationships. Each has its own set of expectations and boundaries. The role of money in the relationship is also very different, but I will talk about that more in a future blog.
Great Lent in Tanzania
Great Lent or Mfungo Mkubwa has begun! Before it began, I was confident that it would be easier to give up certain things here than if I were back home. Then I realized that I had been without those things anyway for the past eight months. The way we have been eating up till now has almost been like a fast in itself, save for the special treats we get in care packages, so I was concerned that it would be difficult to give anything up from an already basic diet. I then had to remind myself that Great Lent is about more than just fasting from food. I now have an opportunity to focus on “cleaning the inside of the cup” and participating in more Lenten services. That is something I never really had the chance to do back in the states. I would always get preoccupied with earthly matters and kept finding excuses to not go to more Lenten services. Now, I am free from a lot of those worries back home, and I live right next door to the church. I intend to take full advantage of that.
I have posted videos from the Sunday of Orthodoxy. One video is of the icon procession around the outside of the church.
The other is of the blessing of Fr. Spyridon’s new home (done after Liturgy on the Sunday of Orthodoxy).
I also recently had a Skype conversation with the Sunday School from my home parish (Annunciation Church in Milwaukee, WI). I have posted those videos, as well.
Thank you to my support team!