Wednesday, August 30, 2017

my "hard" life in Africa

Social media has been a total game-changer for those of us abroad. Facebook, instagram and the like provide the perfect platform to share life across the distance. Birthdays, anniversaries, a beautiful garden or craft project… With a click of a button our joy goes out to the world and we receive the gift of being known. But it’s not only the good we share. We let loose on the hard too. Social media has made it easy for us to be vulnerable. The brevity of status updates means I don’t have to look you in the eye or answer any questions or let you actually see my tear streaks to let you all know that I’ve had a terrible, horrible, no good very bad day.

Expats are particularly adept at online communication since for most of us, this is THE WAY many of us communicate with our friends and family back home. We use it to supply information, but also to solicit responses. It’s a powerful tool, this sound-bite communication stuff, and truth be told, most missionaries are masterful at milking their daily drama for all its worth.

“I have a cold. In Africa. Colds in Africa are so much worse than the colds in America. I don’t have a neti pot. I will likely suffer for three days and not be able to save anyone’s life during this trying time. In Africa. Life is so hard.”

“My kids are on their last box of imported Cheerios and re-enforcements are not coming for another eight days. The sixteen other kinds of circular cereal in this country obviously weren’t blessed by angels and my fragile, third-culture kids have been asked to sacrifice so much. This is clearly a scheme of the devil. Please pray for us.”

It’s possible I’m exaggerating a bit, but really now – I do run in these circles and I see this blubbery, yet persuasive mess every day. Sometimes I even author it myself! While many of the struggles shared are legit and painful in any context, some of these “terrible” situations are just so run-of-the-mill-part-of-life, that, upon reading, I fully expect to reach the comments and find a steady stream of “suck it up buttercup”… But you know what? Time after time, the comments section EATS IT UP. All the single tear drop emojies. Pity heaped upon pity. Donations to fund the neti pot. People who haven’t prayed in a month are all of a sudden hands to the heavens casting out the demon of deprivation and praying for provision of Cheerios. I have no idea why some budding psychologist hasn’t made a winning PhD thesis out of this crazy. 

It would almost seem as if the folks back home have actually bought into the myth that E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G. in in the third world is harder. It’s our own fault, really. When missionaries talk about their life in “the bush” or “the jungle” or on “the islands” without clarifying that that is a geographic marker and not a classification of hardship, we create a suggestive void to be filled by nothing but imagination and worst-case scenarios.

Honestly, misperceptions flow our of our thumbs so easily. When our Provincial grocery store burnt down I’m pretty sure I made it sound like we would all starve to death. I appreciated the solace, at the time. Cheeeeeeese! How will I live without it! But I never did tell you that a few weeks later they opened up a little outlet and lo and behold, we haven’t wasted away. They are even stocking cheese. It’s a selective game, and whether we mean to or not, we all play it.

Admittedly, for those of us overseas, our sharing is often curated to achieve a certain response. This is something I’ve wrestled with a lot. When I read or write posts about the traffic or the tropical diseases or the long waits for absolutely everything, and people react with some variation of “wow you’re amazing and I could never…” the conscientious objector perched on my shoulder whispers, Is our life really harder than theirs?

I’ve been sitting on this question, rolling it around in my head… When I share (whine) about my Zambian problems, am I really any different than my children who are honestly convinced that getting their hair washed is some form of torture? Am I showing my immaturity by failing to balance my problems against those facing truly dark situations?  

To my dear friends in America, let me say this: my life is not harder than yours. How dare I complain about the fact that my children have giardia when I have friends in the states whose children are undergoing heart surgery. How dare I complain about goats eating my begonias when I have friends who have to get in the car and drive to find green space.  How dare I complain that there is no decent ice cream when I have an unlimited supply of avocados for 30 cents a piece. Just. Shut. Up.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down all attitudinal with my journal and instructed myself – COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS. YOU HAVE NO REASON TO COMPLAIN.

I have the best life ever, actually.

The Zambian bush is the best place ever to raise children. My kids get approximately 6 hours of outdoor nature play every day, all year round. Eat your heart out, Charlotte Mason.

My work allows me to be creative, inspired, sacrificial, inventive, risky and loving which is a character bundle that describes not a single for-profit, 9-5, cubical ever. I am spoiled beyond reason.

I have zero debt and live in a house that is paid for and drive cars that are paid for because home and auto loans aren’t a thing here anyway. This is ridiculous luxury.

We can go on a legitimate African safari for the same price our friends pay for a day at the zoo. We can travel to and hang out at one of the seven wonders of the natural world for the same price our friends pay for a day at the water park.

We can country-hop the way our American friends state-hop. You zip down to Florida, we zip down to South Africa. Such is the nature of regional transportation for us.

I have not seen snow or been cold for over 700 days and counting. (And don’t tell me that some people like being cold. No one likes being cold. People like getting warm after being cold, but that is not the same thing.)

I have zero commute. I have survived the traffic in NY, LA and DC and NO THANK YOU. I am blessed and highly favored that I walk a dirt path to all my jobs and pass zero cars on the way.

I shave my legs approximately 3 times a year and strap on a bra approximately never because Zambain women are not oppressed in these Western ways and thank heavens Jeremy is basically Zambian and just lets me live.

Mango season is a thing here and there are so many mangos that they are rotting on the ground before they can all be eaten. Never will we pay 2 for $5 at an American Safeway. That is heresy.

But here’s the thing: I still struggle. A lot. I’ve spent a really long time trying to process how, with full awareness of all this awesomeness (and so much more), how I can still find life here to be hard more often than not.

What in the blazes is wrong with me? It’s like I have a gratitude processing disorder or something.

I was actually starting to be really hard on my self until I finally went on a mental health hunt to figure out why the impressive list of good was not compensating for the modest list of bad.

And finally, it took having someone with special letters after her name to explain it to me to stop feeling guilty about feeling the way that I do.

When you move overseas, you take your First World expectations with you. Slowly those expectations do melt away, but the memories and habit of comparing and contrasting, do not. While I no longer **expect** the clinic to have the medicine for my children on hand, the automatic recall of, “but in the States, they would” can often introduce a surprising angst over what feels like unnecessary pain.

The First World butting up against the Third creates dozens of little moments each day in which we are keenly aware that it doesn’t have to be this way… and all the mangos and warmth and creative inspiration of the village doesn’t blot out these thoughts.

Two of our neighbor babies are in the hospital, slowly dying under a heat lamp because the hospital does not do alternative feeding. (But if we were in America…)

We’re being hounded by the ZRA, RTSA, the ABCDEFG, choose an acronym it doesn’t matter, we’re being hounded because we are white and these offices want money. (But if we were in America…)

My husband lost half a finger because the closest surgeon to reattach it was 12 ours away and we were told it wasn’t worth it. (But if we were in America…)

My third born child sat in an institution for 400 days for no other reason than because a few people were too busy to sign a paper. (But if we were in America…)

We have forfeited a bazillion kwacha (hyperbole) to every shop in town because no one ever has change and pleasing the customer is not a thing. (But if we were in America…)

It took a month to figure out that our kids had giardia because the hospital held onto lab results only to report back to us that they didn’t have the reagent. (But if we were in America…)

And its not that these things are hard-er than any of the trials that our friends in the US are facing. As much as I sometimes want it, I don’t deserve that pity party. However, to be fair to my own emotions, I have to admit that most of these things are hard-different – a byproduct of life as a foreigner and the admission that, if we were in America, these things would likely play out differently.   

I’m willing to stick around a few more decades to find out for sure, but I have a suspicion that no amount of integration or cultural acquisition lets you turn off pre-recorded message in your brain that says, “This dysfunction and/or different value system is causing unnecessary trauma…” And having to process that recoding, day after day, makes the hard-different a unique kind of burden. 

I’m bothered by things that my neighbors don’t think twice about because I have had a different set of experiences. Everything from how families operate to customer service to health care has been colored from my earliest upbringing. And realistically, most people around me carry on just fine because they’ve never encountered a different reality.

It absolutely blows my mind that my daughter’s best friends go to bed hungry two or three nights a week because their parents just didn’t collect food for them. (But that’s the way things are…)

It drives me bonkers that I have to debate with the post-master to give me my mail just because it is addressed to Bethany and Jeremy Colvin. (But that’s the way things are…)

I have to take actual deep breaths when life-saving drugs are only provided on certain days and on certain times. (But that’s the way things are…)

My face gets hot when my paperwork is delayed because they think I’ve falsified my age. “You can’t be that old, you don’t have enough kids.” (But that’s the way things are…)

It kind of makes me want to quit every committee I’m on when rules are made but never enforced and development shoots itself in the foot over and over again… (But that’s the way things are…)

And the balance must exist – to not whine and carry on about it like a five year old, but to create space in my own head to recognize why it all takes a few extra seconds to process and put all the junk away.

And sometimes, in those crucial few seconds, I grab my phone and Mark Zuckerberg does his magic and brings you into my brain-space and it comes out in the form of my life is harder than yours… and for that, I am so sorry. I will continue to count my blessings, as we all should. I SHALL REMEMBER THE MANGOS, FRIENDS. But the next time I post a picture of a snake in my house – please know that I’m not suggesting that the snake is hard-er than your frozen pipes or the flu or cracked iphone screen. It’s just hard-different – for whatever that’s worth.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

boxing up expectations: reflections on OCC and the church

It was a fairly typical Thursday in our house. My husband went to the Mansa Pastor’s Fellowship, the meeting ran late, he got home and scarfed a “used to be warm” meal and gave me the run down of news from our region’s pastors.

So the boxes came up again, he started. I paused from my counter de-greasing to hear this one. Just a few days prior at the Fellowship’s Valentine’s Day event - capping off an otherwise delightful evening of food, love and laughter - the issue of “paying for our boxes” came up in the announcements. Through the thick murmur of voices, we gathered the sound bites of boxes, pay, free, why and no. Missionaries are really good at rolling with confusion so we held onto our questions. (And it was late – the newlywed game went long because we could not stop cracking up.)

Thankfully, at the next weekly meeting of the Fellowship, the topic came up again, and this time, being a more appropriate venue and atmosphere for discussion, the voices of all were heard, one at a time, and a thorough conversation went on and on.

Livid, Jeremy told me. They are livid. These pastors are the most gentle shepherds, so I had to know more. In bullet-point format, Jeremy explained that the Operation Christmas Child boxes had reached the warehouse in Ndola and that the Mansa churches needed to come up with eight kwacha per box for 5,000 boxes to receive their shipment. That’s $4,000USD, Jeremy said, telling me what I had already calculated. He continued to share that comments from the pastors ranged from, “We don’t have this kind of money,” to, “Aren’t these boxes supposed to be free?” to, “Next year, let’s just refuse the boxes all together!”

We haven't always been at these gatherings during OCC distribution time, and so we were back-peddling a little to make sense of these statements. Wait, wait, wait…  is this how it always is? What’s the money going for? Who is responsible for it? Despite the remaining questions, two things were crystal clear: the pastors were forking over cash for OCC boxes, and they were NOT happy about it.

Truth telling and transparency are core values for me, and the details out of that Thursday’s conversation just felt like something that needed to be shared.

This went up on my facebook wall and I honest to goodness didn’t expect much interaction with it. After all, it was a fairly bland statement – I didn’t flavor it with any personal opinions or emotional judgment. I posted because I myself was wrestling with unmet expectations, and I figured a few others out there might be as well. My goal was to describe the gap and let it speak for itself.

Days later, that conversation was still going, and I started composing this post as a way of saying all that I couldn’t say in a comments section. (Speaking of which, I made that particular post public so that anyone can read the full comments … in case you wanted to catch up…)

Having taken time to both dialogue and reflect (thank you, by the way, to everyone who shared thoughts and opinions with me,) I have observed that many, if not most people who engage with Operation Christmas Child do so with three main expectations. I will describe those below along with my observations regarding how those expectations seem to be playing out in Zambia.  

a quick side note...

(Before saying anything further, I need to make the disclaimer that the following opinions are 100% my own and not necessarily representative of anyone I work with or for. Furthermore, my opinions are drawn from my experiences in Zambia alone and may not be reflective of every country in which OCC operates.)

OK back to business…

Expectation one: The $7 shipping cost gets the box TO THE CHILD

This is certainly the most flagrant of unmet expectations. In my initial quest to understand why the churches of Mansa were paying to receive their boxes, I learned from OCC USA directly that the $7 only ships the container(s) of boxes as far as the central warehouse in the country – in our case, Ndola. It is OCC policy that the National Leadership Team (volunteers, and all Zambian) be responsible for distribution and raising funds to cover in-country transportation costs. Historically in Zambia, this has meant levying a transportation fee/payment amongst the churches in each district. This fee is not optional – this is not a free will offering – and it is announced to the churches that those who do not pay will not receive.

OCC policy clearly states that boxes are not to be sold. However, the Leadership Team’s directive to “raise funds” and their decision to do so by levying a “standard transportation fee” has effectively translated to a system of selling and buying the boxes – the National Team sells and the churches buy and that money takes care of the in-country transportation cost as per OCC’s plan. Some churches have chosen to absorb the cost on behalf of their congregants; others have merely fronted the costs and will then re-sell the boxes to the families themselves.

In dialoguing with many box senders in America, it is clear to me that no one actually wants to be a burden to the recipients. A lot of discouragement was generated by the thought of the rural poor having to scrape together funds to buy presents, and I was asked if there was a better way. Well...

I spoke directly with OCC USA regarding the policy and potential solutions. We didn’t have a particularly thorough brainstorming session, as that wasn’t the point of the call, but it did stand out to me that all “solutions” mentioned still kept the burden of transportation cost on the rural communities. Again, this is OCC policy. It was explained to me that OCC strategically does NOT charge the sender $7+K8 in order to ship all the way to the children because they WANT the churches to pay something. As an organization, they do not want to create an unhealthy dependency

This comment about dependency leads me to my second unmet expectation:

Expectation two: The gifts are HELPFUL both in evangelistic outreach and material aid

I’ve already written a full post outlining my thoughts regarding OCC and the coupling evangelism with Christmas gifts. I’d encourage you to read that post as well as I don’t intend on going into it here, but the spoiler is that I thoroughly disagree with this methodology for moral, cultural, and theological reasons.

As for the second element – helpful material aid – when the kind OCC staffer in North Carolina told me that they insisted that the churches pay so as to “avoid dependency,” I heard in that word choice the patent use of “development worker speech.” I started to wonder, just how many people really consider the shipping of these boxes to be an effective form of relief and/or development aid? It seems like Christmas presents don’t necessarily need to be sustainable, so… are our friends packing their boxes full of socks and washcloths and toothbrushes and Band-Aids because they believe they are supplying items that the child actually, desperately needs?

It may be quite right that a child would not have gotten a new toothbrush without that box, and that makes us all feel so useful on this planet, but if material aid is the expectation, this is not good stewardship of resources. For the cost of that new (American) toothbrush, a child in Mansa could buy 10 toothbrushes in the market. This pattern holds true for many of these “necessity” items.

A cost analyses on the boxes as a whole is even more striking. Expenditure certainly varies, but if we guestimate that the average box – contents plus shipping – is worth roughly $30, then have we done a good job of counting the “alternative cost?” Have we considered what could be done with that money instead?

in rural Zambia, $30 can pay for…

60,000 liters of potable drinking water

100 kg of maize meal – feeding a family of 5 for 4 MONTHS

school fees and uniforms for 6 elementary kids for a year

2 breeding goats

6 insecticide treated mosquito nets

15 gallons of soy beans

wages for 3 weeks of farm work
The families are not consulted, of course, (further evidence of poor development practice) – meaning, no one has ever asked them directly, “would you rather have a box of assorted American goods, or would you rather send all of your kids to school this year?” Yikes. Do we even want to know the answer? Would it bust our expectations left and right? And if it did, are we courageous enough to do something else?

community based needs assessment is not an optional step

One thing I did learn from the comment thread on the original post is that there are plenty of families who do NOT share in this expectation. They fully recognize that this is maybe not the best evangelism tool, and it is without question NOT the best aid, but they do it anyway because of the benefit to their kids. I thought about that one long and hard, and to this group I say – despite all my other feelings – GOOD ON YOU, parents, GOOD ON YOU. You have taken intentional action to make your privileged children more generous, aware and missions minded, and this is so very worthwhile. I have heard your question, “is there a better option?” and I desperately want there to be. The impetus is on the local church and its sent-out-missionaries to strategize and facilitate this caliber of experience. We have not done all that we can do, and for that, I am sorry. Nevertheless, you deserve all the props for being both third world savvy and good disciplers of your kids.

As a final observation, I’ll share a third expectation:

Expectation three: A reputable organization like Samaritans Purse can be trusted to  provide oversight

The first responses to hit the wall after my post went live were filled with disbelief. What? How is that possible? There must be an explanation! Not Samaritans Purse!?!?!? Even after I shared “the rest of the story” (that OCC knows that the recipients pay and actually expects them to pay), a handful continued to defend OCC by offering a variety of positive examples from around the world. The sharers of these stories are likely believing that these gold-star results in one location are representative of results everywhere.

As I said at the outset, my perspective is 100% Zambia specific. All I know is that the disappointment over the cost of the boxes HERE is unmistakable. Every other commenter with experience in Zambia said the same thing.

What for all the yeah but… yeah but… yeah buts…stemming from those alternative examples from other countries, still, as far as I’m concerned, ^^^ this means something.

An addendum to the above expectation would be that we expect uniform results across the board. However, a basic rule of a GLOBAL aid organization, is that one-size-fits-all (and works for all,) is not a thing. The cultural climate, relationship to the west, perceptions of power/respect/authority – these all matter hugely.

OCC handles its oversight requirement largely by working with National Leadership Teams, seconding to them great authority in each state of the process. Here, the Team in Ndola – for cultural and other reasons – was not shuttling report of the discontentment across the ocean. The American representative told me that he works closely with the Ndola team and would follow up with them… I was only mildly comforted considering that this voice was 7 time zones away. “Work closely with” can mean so many things… I mean, Jeremy and I would say that we “work closely with” our local pastors; and by this we mean, we know them. Henry Mumba is a jovial leader who almost fell in our pond going down our zip line… Pastor Bwalya fasts and prays quarterly at our farm and never lords his title of Chairman of the Fellowship over anyone… Bishop Chimanga prays for provision while refusing to takes a penny from his extremely poor congregation whose roof we re-constructed this year… Reverend Mwansa is a phenomenal worship leader who is always helping others despite having nine kids of his own. These partnerships are relationally rich – and effective for that reason.

I’ve always been an advocate of supporting the little man because THIS is where accountability WORKS. No one has ever had to call us from another continent to tell us that one of our programs is not working. When something flops, we know it in about twelve seconds because the casualties of that flop usually come knocking on our door. In the same vein, if someone has a question or concern and would like an audience with the top-of-the-top of our organization, I’m pretty sure I can arrange that – dinner is at 6 and please don’t mind if my children throw peas. They lose their minds when we have visitors.

Scope and size of impact grow as an organization gets larger and larger, but quality control is almost always inversely impacted, and that is an understandable tradeoff.

Actually, so much of what we’ve observed with OCC is “understandable” and this is why I “stated the gap” without overt judgment. On some level, I get it. My point in sharing what I have is that the massive donor base of North America is not well versed at vetting, monitoring and evaluating the projects that our funding goes to. We trust the big names – sometimes too much.

At the end of the day, each donor is responsible for his or her investment, and no one else’s. Merely assuming that the stewards of your money are living up to expectation benefits no one. Asking questions and following up need not be hostile or cynical; BUT, with great (financial) power comes great responsibility.

Also, I concede that a lapse in expectation need not be a deal breaker. This too is a personal choice. For me, the unmet expectations outlined above are not palatable, and I will probably never participate with OCC for this reason, nor would I recommend others to participate either. But this is just one opinion, and my perspective is both biased and inherently imperfect. I appreciate the others who have shared their perspectives with me and expanded my understanding. You make me a better missionary, and I thank you.

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.