Blending in

The more time I spend in Uganda and other African countries, makes me wonder what it is that draws me to these places. In my natural, comfortable state, I am pretty close to opposite the average “African” (if I’m going to do some generalizing) citizen. I immensely enjoy planning (as long as its long term big picture planning), I love structure and schedules. I dislike being late. I have a terrible sense of rhythm, and am a bad dancer even for a white person (not that it stops me from having a good time). My ideal diet would be mostly plant and whole grain based. I have the attention span of a two year old; therefore am lucky to sit through a one and half hour church service (forget about an all-day affair). While I consider myself semi social, I am not nearly as relational as people here are. I would likely prioritize finishing a to-do list or making it to a meeting on time, than stopping to chat with someone. I prefer hugs to handshakes. I have no immediate or even long term plans to have a family, and if I ever decide I want kids it’s hard for me to imagine handling more than two or three. Repetition in speech, writing, or song irritates me and when viewing the Bible and faith I struggle with theology that is legalistic or merely focused on evangelism.

There are a million reasons why I do not blend in here and why I often become frustrated, but I also love how different life is here. It is slightly less stressful (in some ways) knowing that meetings will NEVER start on time, deadlines are flexible, and no one takes life too seriously (a lesson that could be learned in many other countries). I appreciate the rhythm and character of music here since it’s so opposite to what I’m capable of and used to and I appreciate the passion people put into their worship even if I’m the awkward one stiffly standing and singing. I appreciate how relational people are and how they will stop whatever they are doing to talk, no matter how trivial the conversation is. While I seriously doubt I will ever learn to love African church services, it is admirable that young children are able to sit through three hour plus services and that people often devote their entire Sunday to church. I’m not sure if I will ever understand the obsession (for lack of a better word) with fertility and “producing” here, and it is one area of Ugandan culture that for the health of the country and people that could perhaps adapt a bit (without trying to sound like I’m trying to change culture).

There is a vibrancy, color, and relaxedness to life in Uganda (and the other African countries I’ve visited) that I haven’t encountered anywhere else in the world. In spite of the many, many reasons I look silly here, I do enjoy Ugandan life and there is so much I will miss.

A “Different” Kind of Love

One of the most beautiful aspects of traveling and living abroad is noticing differences: differences in geography, climate, food, people, culture, music… Unfortunately, it is also these differences that cause misunderstandings, war, segregation, prejudice, and simply the everyday challenges of living abroad. I firmly believe that embracing and relishing in the uniqueness of our world is the first step in creating a harmonious and peaceful world. I know it’s idealistic to imagine a world where we all truly love each other, but it is this thought that gives me tingles of excitement and hope for the future. If you look up the word difference in a thesaurus among words such as “changes”, and “dissimilarities” is the word “arguments”, and differences are often the root of arguments worldwide.

In Uganda one of the many differences I noticed is simply dress and how church services are approached. My German roots and my below average sense of rhythm and coordination, make my presence in an African church service a spectacle (or so I feel as I’m standing stiffly in the front as the rest of the church is bouncing and rocking). Africans have an incredible sense of beat and rhythm. They don’t need an organ or a band with fancy instruments, just their bodies, perhaps a drum, and their hands and voices to create beautiful music. An African church service from start to finish is almost like a dance. The way that the congregation moves and bounces and creates their own beat and music and literally pours their whole body into worshiping God, to the way the service fluidly moves from worship to offering to a sermon where the audience participates and speaks out rhythmically in agreement. To the westerner, African services are painfully long and completely devoid of structure, but at the same time there is something beautiful about how the whole event drags on. I am amazed at how young children can focus as the pastor jumps from one verse to the next in a manner that to me lacks cohesion and focus. I can sit back and be critical of the service and its lack of structure or I can enjoy how different people choose to glorify and worship God. One of my main frustrations with the early Christian movement in Africa was the idea that Europeans had to not only convert all Africans but convert them to western ways. Why? God made us all unique and if we demolish that uniqueness to spread one “right” culture what kind of world would we live in? While, I can’t say that I enjoy a traditional African service, it does provide insight into how different our world is.

I think it’s human nature to get stuck with the idea that our way is right and everyone should adopt this right thinking, particularly for Americans. Growing up in the US, I was ingrained with ideas of how to dress. What is appropriate for certain settings, what is considered modest, etc. But moving to South Korea completely ripped those ideas apart. Wearing a sleeveless shirt in summer, never made me feel self-conscious and the thought that I was dressed “too sexy” never occurred to me. However, I soon discovered that in much of Korea showing shoulders or even your collarbone is too “shexy”. On the other hand, wearing a mini skirt to work wouldn’t faze anyone. In my western mind set, I was frustrated, especially during the humid summer months. But who decides what is appropriate or inappropriate? It all depends on the culture you’re in. In Uganda, I am experiencing the opposite extreme. In most settings, showing leg above the knee and often even wearing pants as a woman is very inappropriate. Yet, breast feeding VERY openly in church, and forgetting to put everything back in your shirt when finished, or wearing a plunging neckline doesn’t cause anyone to blink an eye. I laughed in church as the pastor discussed “not being a stumbling block by our dress” (a matter that I don’t entirely agree with) as a women was calmly breastfeeding her child in the front row. He was definitely not addressing her, but to the average western observer (and definitely a Korean observer), they would have been horrified. If the same pastor were to enter an American church and witness all the women wearing pants or skirts/dresses above the knee, he would either think all American Christians heathens, or his perceptions of modesty would be challenged.

Slowly, I’m learning to find these differences humorous and insightful. Even in light of the atrocities committed by the LRA or the Idi Amin reign in Uganda and how Ugandans have responded, we need to take into account cultural differences. Response to conflict and reconciling conflict is different in every country. In Uganda they have attempted to “forget and forgive” rather than hold people accountable for their actions. Many westerners are critical of this reconciliation method. Shouldn’t we openly expose the atrocities and hold people accountable so that we don’t repeat history? This is a dialogue I have gotten into with Ugandans as I learn about Uganda’s history and politics. There is never one simple worldwide solution and it’s important to remember that what works in one country doesn’t necessarily work in another. While, accountability and remembrance may have been successful in post Nazi Germany, in a country like Uganda that is made up of so many different tribes and tribalism dictates so much of politics, to hold people accountable may have only increased rifts between different groups and sparked more war.

My deepest prayer for the world is that someday we would learn to embrace and learn from our differences and take joy in noting how diverse, beautiful, and wondrously made each part of the world and each human being is. Rather than simply “spreading democracy” everywhere because that is supposedly the government system that works worldwide, or giving technology to people because it works somewhere else in the world, or expecting people to worship or dress a certain way; I envision a world where we are building relationships not walls, fighting injustice not wars, and spreading love not democracy.

Luke 10:25-37

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

 25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

   26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

 27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]

   28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

 29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

 30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

   36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

   Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”