Wednesday, February 1, 2017

accidental colonialist

We prepare for months to move into communities where we will be the only Americans. We are taught the importance of shedding our privilege and pretense, and are given the skills to accomplish the same. Sustainability is our middle name. Cultural sensitivity, our constant concern. Respect, empowerment, preservation – we have PHD’s in all these subjects. This is what we’ve come for. We are straight professionals at judging anyone who comes off as “too American.”

But what fun would the ex-pat life be without cultural exchange? Where’s the harm – and isn’t there even a lot of benefit? – in goofing off around a fire, sharing recipes and funny accents and style. The 90’s top-pop-hits deserve to be shared (!) and aren’t multi-racial dance parties the best way to bond with your new friends anyway?

And bond we do, and life is groovy and we’re feeling more confident with each passing day. All the training and theory and conviction grows roots and sprouts wings and mixes all the development metaphors, as it turns into a kind of third-culture tie-die project in real life.

We all have to make it over the one-year hump, but once the wind catches your sails, and you can just glide? The life overseas sure gets good.

Speaking for the hubs and I, years and years later, our convictions never did change – our friends’ didn’t either – but the stories around us have diverged from our common campfire start.

I don’t believe one can honestly assess the good he or she has done without equally assessing the bad. This is where I’ve found myself milling about as of late. Perhaps it’s because we just submitted our year-end report (obviously focusing on the good). Or because I recently celebrated my ten year anniversary in this country! Or perhaps it’s because we’ve come face to face with a series of unfortunate examples recently… Whatever the cause, I’m thinking a lot about this ambiguous expat life and trying to evaluate not only my obvious highs but also my lurking lows.

It was several years ago that a friend reached out to me. There wasn’t really a “point” to her message, per se – as in, she wasn’t telling me to “stop doing this” or “start doing that,” but was sharing a meditation of sorts – the concerns of her soul, through which she shared some thoughts and feelings for me to appraise. I forget her wording, but the sentiment has stuck with me. There’s something about your life that feels risky. I just think it’s dangerous when Americans move into an African community and try and “do good.”

My naive and arrogant self was offended. Sister. Friend. I’m not like “those people” – do you not trust me? Can you not see for yourself? Respect, culture, friendship… do no harm – these are tattooed on my heart.

Unfortunately, her admonition came too early in my career. I hadn’t developed the core competency of self-evaluation, and I truly thought that my convictions were enough to hold me to a good standard. But thankfully, all good seeds eventually bear fruit and despite my botched reply, (I’m sorry), I couldn’t un-read those original words and they’ve grown into a larger script – a cautionary tale, as I’ve learned to see how dangerous the overseas existence truly is.

I remember my first afternoon in Fimpulu with embarrassing clarity. My earliest memory in this place is that of casting judgment on an inadequate structure at the clinic, mentioning to my translator, that, “that would need to be changed” and continuing on as if someone had actually invited me to audit anything at all.

In those early days, I spent not enough time asking questions, and far too much time providing answers. A year or two later, I grew disillusioned because things were, in large part, staying quite the same, even though I had expected my presence to be the end of that.

There were myriad times I spoke too fast because I need you to know how smart I am. Broke custom because give me a break people. Disregarded concerns because let me tell you how the developed world does it.

Colonialism comes in all forms – action and attitude – and at various times I have been guilty of both. Lament and repent – there’s been plenty of that – but what has returned me to my friend’s word of caution has been my painful realization that colonialism comes so very easily.

I’ve seen it in my own experience as in so many others. We spend so much time getting in, going deep. Sharing space and stories and the stuff of life. We laugh enough to build bridges and break bread (can you “break nshima?) enough to superglue our relational bonds. But what comes next is where it gets tricky: The growing relationship breeds a certain security and we expats let loose a little, showing our colors (maybe even our knees). We talk more freely and less filtered, capitalizing on our new and exciting “insider status.” It all starts to feel familiar – like home. Expat nirvana, or something equally disorienting.  

Reflecting on ten years and observing how different situations have drawn out of me a more pronounced colonialism, I assert this equation as “fact”:

Culture + relationships + collaboration – extreme vigilance = accidental colonialism

You and I are friends and we both want development here and we work so well together and so CLEARLY all the words coming out of my mouth are brilliant and thank you for agreeing with me totally I’m so excited this is great! Wanna take a selfie to commemorate this moment?

 And the resentment builds and the effectiveness wanes because the American has stopped tip-toeing around and has gone full-tilt star spangled banner but the host culture won’t say anything because, culture, … and the damage is done.

We’ve seen it in ourselves – Jeremy and I both have – and in countless others as well. I cannot even tell you how many groups I’ve chaired where I led us down a culturally irrelevant path… for years… before I figured out it wasn’t working and everyone else responded with, oh thank heavens! We’ve been waiting for you to realize how terrible your idea was! I scrolls thorough the “annals of hubris” in my brain and I revisit all the times that I have imposed timed decision making, facilitated “say you’re sorry” conflict resolution, or lectured egalitarian principles as marriage counseling. In many cases these are great ideas! If only they were instituted in an American context and had any relevance to my neighbors at all.

Not long ago, we watched a *could have been beautiful* partnership fall to ruins as a team of Zambians got steamrolled by a better-trained, more-knowledgeable American. The diverse team had a common goal to guide them, but cultural sensitivity was in short supply. The American assumed that because systems and structures and knowledge were obviously lacking that all those things would be universally welcomed… in any form. The pace and style of change were forcefully American – so much so that the Zambian staff couldn’t cope up and had to pull the plug. They acknowledged their co-worker’s competence, but could not get past certain habits – book-based evidence over years of experience, dismissing core Zambian values, insistence on direct communication, inflexibility with schedules and times. It’s like the American doesn’t want to learn from black skin, the Zambians cited. Ouch. Accidental colonialism at its finest.

Still more recently, we endured a unique cultural clash in which Jeremy and I were leading group of Zambians who were staffing an event for a team of Americans. The visitors were running a tightly-scheduled, high-stakes, American-by-all-definitions program and wanted us to help the Zambians get on board by keeping time, participating directly, and ensuring a certain level of precision. After working through a host of complaints, the Americans advised that we take greater care to “build our staff’s capacity” – guidance that fell somewhat flat as we sympathized more with our Zambian co-workers, viewing the unmet-expectations not a matter of capacity but of a differing value system. (America-splaning is a real skill. Tag that on LinkedIn.)

The truly unfortunate thing is that neither of these situations was ever properly debriefed. Communicating failure to the well-intentioned foreigner is not the easiest.

Um hi, you are accidentally imposing your cultural presuppositions on the host culture, which means you are accidentally colonizing an otherwise valid mission.

We’ve seen more than one American take offense that the Zambian counterpart never confronted the American with their complaints. Uhhh… Oops again, friends. Even the insistence that “if there’s a problem, it’s your responsibility to come talk to me” is cultural imperialism.

So. Easy.

Thanks to time, lots of grace, maturity and observation, I’ve gotten better at hearing my words before they leave my mouth. But what’s more, learning to evaluate my motivation has been the single most important habit I’ve cultivated in ten years abroad. It is a safeguard of sorts, despite needing to be constantly refined. Conscious effort goes a long way, but the subversive nature of culture is that it just IS – without us really realizing its sway over our whole being.

Not a one of us has ever meant to impose, or control or dominate, but many expats falsely assume that as long as they mean well and laugh and love, that they are somehow safe. But in reality, life overseas has more layers than a chocolate parfait, and like my South African calculus teacher used to say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

I don’t think that the potential for harm negates the importance of trying. Not at all. When I think back on all that has been accomplished and all the ways that our community has grown, I can conservatively guess that 999 out of 1,000 co-workers and acquaintances would say, it’s been worth it! I am forever indebted, though, to the Americans and Zambians alike who have taught and corrected us, and who walk with us still, ensuring that we do less and less harm with each passing season, for everyone’s sake.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

America's witchcraft

In the last year or so, we started sharing more stories of our struggles with witchcraft in this region. Like how Bashi Future spent all his money and a year of his life building a house and then immediately vacated it because he dreamed that someone had cursed him out of jealousy. Or how Sam experienced an unexplained palsy and the entire community agreed that he was taken over by an evil spirit after sleeping with a pregnant girl. Or that time Bana Mwansa lost her phone and paid the witch doctor $5 to divine who had taken it and the witch doctor accused a young boy who instantly went mad, hurling himself into fires.

pc: nanga
Our awareness of and encounters with witchcraft (both real and perceived) has grown steadily with our integration. To give an idea of the frequency we're now experiencing, the Chief has come to our village three times this year to address those who are flinging curses, living in fear and dealing in darkness. Ya’ll knock it off, he pleaded. His charge was knowingly simplistic. The animistic world is all encompassing and one cannot simply cease believing it any more than one can stop breathing air.

pc: lusaka voice
The bondage of sorcery and witchcraft translates poorly to the Christian west. Despite all the anecdotes, it's still a mystery for the most part. Not only is there conflict between science and reason – (for example, science tells us that one cannot be protected against seizures by tying a snake fang around one's neck) – but there is also strong disapproval regarding the syncretism between faith and culture. Zambia is, after all, a "Christian nation" and the acceptance of the demonic into every day life registers indefensible. HOW, the Westerners ask, how can a family conclude a Christian funeral, complete with a Christ-centered homily and then transition into a ritual coffin chasing? 

pc: lusaka times. mourners hoist the coffin in the air, letting it direct them to the front door of the "murderer" 
To the culturally removed observer, it all just looks... wrong.

We too feel your angst.

From a ministry perspective, we’ve prayed long and hard about the problem of witchcraft in our communities. The bondage is real and the effects sobering. Over the years, we’ve talked ourselves blue in the face – hashing and re-hashing the scientific, scriptural, rational and theological foundations for rejecting witchcraft outright. The result has been consistent: two versions of reality clash again and again and we are the recipients of the sometimes gracious, sometimes patronizing response: We don’t expect you to understand our culture. My white skin belies me as “other” and I lose my foot to stand on.

A handful of times, usually in frustration, we have blurted out the ultimatum: You CANNOT serve both God and Satan! Period! The response is always and forever the same. No madam, no, we are all Christians here. This is something that our black culture deals with. I bristle at the racial divide, but who am I to argue?

pc: kitwe online

Our burdened sharing draws out sympathy and fervent prayer from folks back home. For a long time, I concurred with the indignant response. Yeah, that’s right. This witchcraft stuff is CRAZY! Inexcusable. Can’t understand it. Pray for them. They are so lost.

It’s easy – too easy – to see another’s blind spots. And that sliver in my own eye grows the size of a tree.

I'm thankful that the ex-pat metamorphosis has been working its magic as of late. The ability to view ones birth culture with a fair and critical eye is a rare and beautiful gift. I don’t know whether "culturally neutral" is a thing, and if it is, I’m not there yet. But I find that each passing year, the distance between the west and myself widens a bit more, and I begin to ***see***.

With greater reflection specifically on America's reaction to the witchcraft of Africa, I've seen more and more of the similarities between the cultures. At one point, somewhere in the muddle of the US election, Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Christmas season, after listening/reading a stream of greedy, snarky, buy, sell, want, must have everythings, I found my lost marbles long enough to yell at Jeremy: OH MY GOODNESS...
                       Materialism is America’s witchcraft. 

He nodded. And I mused. And we both felt a little ashamed.

I know that sounds extreme - maybe even unfounded - and I might be all alone out here in left field, but that's the ex-pat life anyhow. For me, the evidence stacks high enough. I admit that I am strongly influenced by my Zambian neighbors who look on the same evidence with horror and pray (long and hard and publicly, mind you) for us all.

For example...

When American Christians started expressing disdain for rising health costs because of all of the “freeloaders,” our Zambian friends (every last one of which believes that health care is a human right) judged that attitude HARD.

Charitable giving amongst evangelical Christians does not, on average, breach 3%.  And yet, how many times have one of our neighbors emptied their entire savings account to help a friend in need?

The goal to save money for retirement or investment or business or the next big purchase drives Americans to work to the point of neglect and save to the point of stingy. In contrast, just the other day, my friend Carol dropped all the money she has in this life down the pit latrine… and she laughed about it. (Though for what its worth, Carol would like to advise everyone to not tuck all your cash in the fold of your chitenge - especially when using a pit latrine. You're welcome.)

When someone starts wasting an American's time, the first thought is (say it with me now,) TIME IS MONEY, (of course). Our Zam neighbors admire the inherent ambition there but but reject the motive and prefer a higher principle which is that time is relational and not to be monetized.

Corporate greed. Widening class divide. Emphasis on individual responsibility over community care. Shopping, shopping, shopping. More, more, more. $$$$$$$$$$$$$$.

It's the American way all right. I could paint broad strokes and list examples for days but I think most Americans already know its true, deep down. Freedom and capitalism are basically synonyms and my RIGHT to consume and hoard and buy and own is the good life, says the culture. 

I'm mindful of the fact that this is all so poignant now more so than at other times because we have just exited the Christmas season – the time of year that displays America’s spirit of materialism with all the flourish of a billion twinkle lights.

You know, I used to think that Zambians didn’t celebrate Christmas, and then I realized that it's just that they don’t give each other presents as if that were the purpose of the holiday in the first place.

The Zambian Christians get a whiff of our adulterated Christmas culture and are all like, wait, who the baby-Jesus-cradling hay is Santa?

Witch. Craft.

That the buying of material things has competed for and won the spotlight on the day we celebrate God With Us demonstrates an unredeemed worldview, akin to the evils of animism.



That’s what the villagers say about their coffin chasings.

No, no, this is different, American Christians say.

Feel free to make your case, though I am not your judge. BUT, from an African cultural view point, in the timespan between Thanksgiving to Christmas in America, syncretism is spelled R E T A I L.

BUT, (the justification comes flying at me with a tail of tinsel trailing behind,) we give gifts because Jesus is the greatest gift! It’s symbolic.

I love giving gifts for this reason! But that excuse is as tacky as the above gif. (SO. TACKY.) Tell me, how many American kids wake up at the crack of dawn on December 25th and cry out GIVE ME JESUS!!! Four years now of MK training and mine don't! Our culture has failed our theological convictions something awful.

Many Christian families have just stopped trying. Christmas is a cultural construct emphasizing  socially acceptable, albeit unnecessary and exessive material accumulation, and we read the Christmas story too and go to church on Christmas Eve (but never Christmas morning, because, hello… presents…) and somehow that’s all ok. I know it shows the depths of my cultural deviance, but as I see all the Christian parents on facebook facilitating Santa, my Zam side comes out and I can only think, “What manner of juju is this!?!”

But its different, they say. It’s just a holiday, they say. Jesus is the reason for the season! We keep our gift giving (euphemism for materialism) in check! … Kind of like the money our neighbors give as an offering to a chief to "bless" the land, or the necklace around the baby’s neck to “protect” her… That too is “just tradition.”

The ultimatums I've declared to the animists reverberate in my head though they sound different this time...

You cannot serve both God and Mammon 

The Good Book says it straight, if we have ears to hear.

So… really now, we’re going to pray spiritual freedom over this: 

pc: lusaka times

but not this:

Not all culture and tradition is evil, obviously, and the antidote to cynicism is identifying and amplifying the aspects of culture that disclose their heavenly DNA. Like so many things, this too integrity and introspection; parceling out what is “mere tradition” vs. straight idolatry is not as easy as I wish it could be.

But I check myself often with a word of caution, lest I assume that I am on the straight and narrow. As the old proverb goes, "a fish doesn't know it's wet."

I don’t think I would have ever been able to criticize my own culture minus having immersed myself in another. I see fallen aspects of Zambian culture much more readily than my fellow Zambians do because I don’t swim fully in that water. And perhaps I see America's fallenness more sharply now too because I don't swim fully in that water either.

Few readily accept being told that they are idolaters, and conviction only truly comes from above. But I still maintain: America needs African missionaries. The same West that sees clear as day the evils of witchcraft desperately needs non-American, prophetic voices decrying our worship of material things. We mustn't forget, America does a disproportionate amount of sending not because we need the least amount of cultural renewal, but because we have the financial resources to do the sending whereas many other's don't.

As for me, I haven’t backed off of witchcraft due to my rising convictions that, well, America is evil too… but I have grown in my empathy in the struggle for right perspective, and I’ve doubled down my efforts to weed out my cultural presuppositions and make them as answerable to scripture as I expect animism to be.

Anyone else want to join me?

Sunday, October 9, 2016

the mission of motherhood… all you need is love?

Back before I had a life overseas, I attended a missions conference during which the speaker stood on the stage and told us to anticipate three profound keys to making a difference in a person’s life, a region, and the world. His three points were, (1) Relationship, (2) Relationship, and (3) Relationship. When I joined the Peace Corps, we were forbidden from doing any “work” for three full months with our one and only job being to build relationships. Recently, I had a conversation with a local counterpart about how to remedy a sticky situation and over the course of our thirty-minute discussion, I heard the word relationship at least seven times.

Relationship, it seems, is crucial, not just because it makes us feel warm and fuzzy but because relational connection is essential to effecting change. That sing-song phrase – people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care – it’s annoyingly overused because it’s true. In the realm of community development, progress comes hard, and often, not at all, unless whole people are engaged, hearts are connected and friendships are born.

We spend time regularly taking our relational temperature within our community. And spoiler alert, it has nothing to do with dollars spent. We understand that how much we do for people is altogether separate from how well we connect with them. For this reason, we routinely ask for feedback on how well we are loving people. Recently, a friend told us that some of our habits are culturally awkward. “Stop having people over for dinner,” he said. “It’s American and it’s weird. Just go sit with them in the afternoons. Watch football. Shoot the breeze. Love your neighbors the way they love each other.” It’s awkward to be awkward, but we learn. We adjust. If we want to make a difference, this love thing is a non-negotiable. Sometimes I walk around and hum to myself, (especially if I’m hitting a brick wall in a particular area)… All you need is love, love. Love is all you need.

I’m thankful for the lessons community development has taught me. My pre-kid life gave me lots of practice in the realm of behavior change and connecting across a divide, which are PHD level skills in mommyhood. After all, we are charged with transforming tantrum throwers with no frontal lobe who can’t even wipe their own bottoms into productive members of society. No small task. I’ve noticed how the relational compass we’ve adopted for the village has also done a good work in guiding our home. I often gaze down at my kiddos while they sleep – all still and for once not talking, and as I pray over their delicate selves, my most constant request is that they would know how much I love them.

There is a common fear amongst ex-pat and missionary parents – we are neurotic about not screwing our kids up. We know too many TCK’s and MK’s who have gone off the deep end, and it’s terrifying. I have googled all the articles, read all the blogs, searching for answers, wondering what I need to do to assure that my children turn out globally-awesome and not wholly-dysfunctional. I’ve made it my duty to ask this question of every parent I know who has raised their children overseas. The data for this topic in my head is fathoms deep and all the answers basically say the same thing: kids need to know that they are loved. Who would have guessed?

It makes sense that loving my kids would look different than loving the lady next door, and thankfully, many wise people have contributed to fleshing out what this special brand of third-culture-love looks like. There are many ways to do this well, but a common theme that arises over and over focuses on this: making sure our kiddos know that they are more important than the work. They need the security to know that they are not second to the mission. They are not extra luggage. They are loved more than all the other things. They are not missionary kids they are Colvin kids. Family comes first because these precious short people matter.

The other day I was playing “phone” with Bronwyn. It’s a good chance to work on her conversational skills, and for me to quiz her on details. What’s your name? (Bronwyn Colvin Bupe) How old are you? (4) Where do you live? (Center Zambia) What are your parents names? (Bashi Winnie Jeremy Colvin and Bana Winnie Bethany Colvin) Who are your siblings? (Beauty, Michael, Timo and Leonie.) (Beauty, Michael and Timo are not her siblings, but I let it go because it’s too cute to argue with.) I held my breath a little when she answered my last question – a stretch for her, I knew. What do your parents do for a living? I asked, and waited while she thought. Her answer went like this:

“Well, you cook my supper… and read me all the books… and walk me to preschool… and… do whatever I ask you!”

My first two thoughts were, (1) remind me to never make her the key-note speaker at a Choshen fundraiser, and, (2) good grief, I sound whipped.

But in the same heartbeat I registered, she thinks my job is to meet her needs… I love that. Maybe it’s my uncompromising, attachment-parent self that is amplifying my ex-pat mom anxieties… but that my daughter identifies that my job is to be responsive is the highest compliment.

Truth is, team Jeremy and Bethany works its collective tush off to be productive human beings, using our gifts and talents for the good of humanity while at the same time raising little people in the knowledge and security that they are more important than all the good things we could ever do. For Bronwyn, that means all the physical affection and book time on the couch that her little soul can handle. For Leonie, it means on-demand nursing and a strict “if she cries bring her to me” policy. It means limited use of the words “I’m busy,” and if I truly am busy, it means communicating how soon my attention will be freed up. It will surely mean different things as they grow older, but it will always imply, “you are the most important thing in my world.”

I can consider it a gold star to hear that my kids don’t know how much “work” I do – not because I don’t work hard but because my hard work is clearly not in competition with my demonstration of love for them.

All you need is love? 

I'm sold.