Friday, April 1, 2016

why our children NEED a multicultural community

If I got a nickel (or 50 ngwee) every time I heard “because that’s the way we do it!” I’d be richer than rich… in multiple currencies.

Bush work is hard for many obvious reasons. The lack of resources and infrastructure make even moderate growth a super-struggle. The environment is actively trying to kill us. Language barriers. Snakes. No road signs.

Friends, there has not been cheese in Shoprite since forever.

The straw that tips the scale though has to do with (surprise, surprise) - PEOPLE. People are people the world over, but when it comes to facilitating development, rural communities, by virtue of their homogeneity and isolation, tend to experience the greatest conflict.

The majority of Fimpulu folk had never seen a white person before the Peace Corps spit me out and we started our dance party. It would appear that that was the first time my neighbors realized that there were people on the planet without natural rhythm or an inherent understanding of Bemba or built in SPF.

In those early days, I did absolutely everything “wrong.” I rolled my nshima wrong and washed my dishes wrong and tied my chitenge wrong and pronounced every word wrong. I owned the wrong kind of cooking spoon and I braided my hair wrong and I owned the wrong flip flips (I’m unwaveringly loyal to my Reef Gingers).

getting it. but still insisting on wearing reefs.
 Over time, I learned “the right way” to do most of these things, and since then we’ve all been getting along royally. More importantly though, I learned just how deep the waters of culture go. In the contest for behavior change, the more insular the culture, the more loyal its patrons are. To cultural adherents, new ideas are neither “interesting” nor “compelling.” All things “different” tend to be, at best, “wrong” and at worst, “dangerous,” neither of which is particular conducive to willful adoption of change.

Here in Fimpulu, there is exactly ONE right way to cut and cook leafy greens. There is ONE right way to acknowledge a sneeze. There is ONE right way to hold your arms when you are in trouble.

I spy eight things in this picture that are "culturally informed"
The vast majority of cultural nuances are harmless. Is it really that bad to go through only life tucking instead of tying your chitenge, or avoiding making eye contact with your in-laws? Probably not. (Don’t stress, I love my in-laws).

But what if the behavior isn’t so neutral?

What if your soil stops yielding because you burn it to a crisp every year?

What if you’re chronically constipated because you refuse to drink water before noon?

What if your newborn goes septic because of the way you cut the cord?

What if you’re in debt for the rest of your life because you had to “buy” a spouse?

What if your hair turns orange and your eyes turn red because you think maize is the most powerful food on the planet?

What if you are trapped in unhealthy and dangerous behaviors because you simply cannot conceive of a different reality.

on top of the world really? or matter or perspective
I have this kind of conversation no less than once per week:

Nope, you do not need to put ashes on your babies soft spot. Nope, your child will not starve to death if you exclusively breastfeed until six months. Nope, you cannot contract HIV from witches. (Unless you are sleeping with them. And don’t do that.)

No really, you must drink more than two glasses of water a day. No really, you don’t need spiritual cleansing for having touched a dead body. No really, your baby will be less cranky if you take the six layers of wool off of her. No really, your money does not make you spend it.

I basically eat skepticism for breakfast
The NGO world has led us all to believe that what people need is information. Just tell them, they say... and billions of dollars go towards this end. But there is a category of information out there that is ages deep and miles long that people suffer to understand because it is so far from their perceived reality.

In closed cultures, nearly everything is etched in the ancient trees. How and why things are done is a woven story, passed down from generation to generation, with all the authority of every person who has ever walked the red-dust-bush path. In this context, divergence is considered neither noble nor brave but rather rebellious and haughty.  Compliance is the MO and asking why is a fool’s game.

These footprints tell a far deeper story

New ideas, however brilliant, are filed under “foreign” and received with polite dismissal.

Oh how nice that white babies’ soft spots close naturally. But this is how we do it.

Oh how nice that those pills prevent pregnancy in white women. But this is how we do it. (Or not, as evidenced by your ten children, but whatever.)

Oh how nice that white people like to put peanut butter on all of their food instead of eating nshima three times a day… BUT THIS IS HOW WE DO IT.

trying to perceive a different reality

The statement would be fine except that there is no 'because' at the end of it. No reason. No rationale. No research. We do it because it’s the way we do it. Even unto bankruptcy. Even unto broken relationships. Even unto death.

It would be too easy to criticize these closed cultures, waiting impatiently for them to get with the program. But the longer I live here, the more I realize how much my own cultural upbringing taught to me these same “but this is how we do it…” ways of thinking.

It wasn’t till I moved to Africa that I learned that you could let people wander in and out of your house without that being a violation universal human boundary. It was here that I learned that sometimes you work your tail feathers off and still don’t get your just deserts. It was here that I learned that you can agree with a democrat and not lose your soul. It was here that I learned that you don’t have to cook scrambled eggs in the microwave.


Bronwyn makes a really good "mind blown" face for me. Leonie just hates loud noises.
No seriously. I learned that its ok to pick my baby up when she cries and that boobs in public are whatever and that stuff is just stuff and fences make awful neighbors. I say often to my friends, America isn’t perfect either… But truth be told, it took leaving my culture to believe that.

Despite having grown up in a diverse town, I led a rather insulated life which I can best describe as “simplistic.” My friends and I found it easy to scoff at others because we “knew” the “right” answers which flew out of our mouths without pause. I have to wonder whether so many of my peers went off the deep end in early adult hood because they lacked the life skill of productively processing cultures outside of our conservative evangelical bubble. I also have to wonder what life would have looked like had I begun my “African awakening” at the age of 2 instead of 22.

She's lucky to have him
Cultural acquisition begins early, and I’ve enjoyed watching the slow-mo-assimilation-show play out gradually in my own living room. As I raise my children in this hybrid land of white and black and all the grays, I want them to have exposure to the breadth of philosophies about life and opinions in motherhood and ways of cutting and cooking their vegetables.
she looks super white... but I guess in some ways she is...
Please hear me well: The goal is not to raise moral relativists who lack conviction. The goal is to raise intellectually responsible Christ followers who are empathetic, global citizens. I firmly believe that exposure to a multi-cultural community is essential in achieving this goal. 

We love our kids and are responsible for their upbringing. We will, therefore, teach them the all the things that we believe to be important, and make for darn certain they know WHY.

We will teach them that Jesus is the greatest and that justice might mean getting the short end of the stick and that cheese sauce makes everything taste better. We will introduce them to people we call friends who deviate from our stances… not as a tactic to make them feel superior but to help them grow in empathy and resilience as they wrestle again and again with the questions of why we do what we do.

Having learned something from our Fimpulu neighbors, I want our kids to not only be able to conceive of a different reality but also to interact with it, digest it and grow in heart because of it. 

Bronwyn with the chefs at our fav Indian restaurant in Lusaka. Because there will be curry in heaven.

Leonie with the same chef.

No blind following. No blind arguing. No blind dressing and cooking.

No blind mothering or working or living. Health and happiness and heaven matter far too much.

Mwewa matters. So much.

Culture is a gift and the mish-mash of different cultures a greater gift still.

And our children NEED it.

they need each other

In what ways do you find it easy or difficult to introduce your children to a multi-cultural community?