When we lived in Africa, at times it was very uncomfortable to have the material goods we did. We determined we would attempt to live at the level of a schoolteacher or other middle-class professionals. But, even with that as an objective, we were still looked at as being rich…make that very rich in our town.
Personally, I never felt rich; but I often told my children, “You are what people perceive you to be, even if you aren’t.” The fact is we did have what rich people had: a car; motorcycle; refrigerator; computer; TV; indoor plumbing; lots of pots and pans; eating utensils; nice tools; fans; lights in every room; multiple changes of clothes; nice mattresses and beds; and food whenever we were hungry.
At one point in our first term on the field, we gave serious thought to moving out into a remote village and living in a mud hut with a thatched roof. It sounded like a good idea to us. We were convinced it would help us relate better to the people and demonstrate we did not see ourselves as “rich” or better than they were.
I shared the idea with an African brother who was my cultural confidant. I asked what he thought of this plan. It was a good thing we were good friends or I might have been insulted by his reaction. He gave me the “You’ve got to be kidding me look” and matched the look as he said, “Oh, I’d think you were stupid if you did that.” Shocked, I inquired as to why this act of adaptation might be perceived as “stupid.” He was ready with a response: “It would not be good because everyone knows you are rich and you can afford to do better than live in a mud hut. Most all of the people in the village would live in a house with a tin roof if they could afford it, and they know you can”
The lesson was a bit brutal but clearly understood. Everywhere missionaries go they have to deal with how they are perceived by the indigenous people. Where we live and how we live are just two of the many elements that come into play. How the missionary responds to these challenges will affect how people respond to them.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Should missionaries be concerned about how they are perceived in their adopted cultures?
What principles should guide them in dealing with adjusting in a new culture?