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The Culture Gap

Catherine Mabongor writes about the challenges of life in a very different culture.

Have you ever been in a group of people and felt alone?  Well, I’m not that badly off here, but I have often felt like the odd man out.  I have known for a very long time, a very very long time, that I am considered strange here in Uganda.

I look different; blonde hair, pasty white skin and green eyes.  If you want to blend in or be invisible (like I do) this is definitely not the place to spend your life.

I can’t listen in to other people’s conversations. Leave alone not being able to speak the language, I can’t overhear the language. I miss eavesdropping.

I don’t really care about your goats. It takes ages to properly greet someone in this tribe. I have the phrases memorized and it usually works out okay as long as the locals don’t deviate from the script. It’s when we get down to the nitty-gritty that I get lost. Sure I can ask how are the kids, the home, the garden. I can thank you for praying, digging, cooking. But when it comes to the welfare of your farm animals I really couldn’t care less. Okay I’m pathetically proud of our new calf and our sweet little pink pig Precious. But I draw the line at goats and absolutely refuse to discuss chickens.

What is really painful, here I have to wipe the smile off my face and speak candidly. What is really painful is when I try my very best to connect with people and it comes across all wrong. I mean the opposite of right, good, kind, loving. There is a word for that – it’s called failure.

We have a guy staying with us. He has a strange name that is hard for me to pronounce but stranger still is the fact that he freezes every time he sees me. Now don’t get me wrong, he’s a sweet guy. Very hard working, prays like an angel with cleats on. But the guy is terrified of me. So I’ve been trying even more to be especially kind to him. I use direct eye contact to draw him in, I get closer when speaking to make him feel special, I gently touch his shoulder to show him how much I care. WOW! Apparently those are all the completely WRONG things to do in this culture. The guy is like a turtle in his shell, a turtle that has been burned by a group of ornery boys who also drove nails in his shell.

Enter Shem. My husband is Mr. Congeniality. He speaks practically every language. And if he doesn’t know your language he will after hearing you speak for three minutes. We had a Korean pastor come to our house for a visit and Shem spoke to them in Korean. I kid you not!

So I’m married to Superman. Irritating at times but also quite helpful if I can just chill out and listen to his advice. He is usually very patient with me (in between occasional fits of yelling). So Shem comes on the scene. I’m in tears the strange guy is crying like a baby. Oh brother! It was not a good time.

Shem tells me the secret of communicating with Ugandans. Whether using English or chopped up bits of the local language the key is DO THE OPPOSITE. Yup. That’s it. That’s the big earth shattering secret. Stop acting like an American, stop thinking like and American. At least God doesn’t stop me from looking like an American, although I’ve thought about wearing a black curly wig.

I think direct eye contact is respectful – here I should look at the ground.

I think facing a person shows interest – here I should face away from them or to the side.

I think asking questions shows I’m concerned – here it is seen as badgering and judgmental.

I think talking about the issue is the best way to settle things – here I should beat around the bush as much as possible so as not to embarrass anyone.

I think taking personal responsibility for my actions is a brave response – here it is seen as bullying someone into admitting they made the mistake on purpose with full intent to harm.

I think if you know the truth about a confusing situation you should bring clarity – here the more secrets you keep and the more obtuse you behave, the more honorable you are.

So . . . as you can see, I’m stuck. But don’t give up on me yet. I hate to pull the Bible out of my bag of tricks as if just knowing the Word solves everything. That is simply not true. It is not knowing scriptures but applying them in faith that’s the ticket to the good life.

I can no longer afford to behave, think or talk on autopilot according to my experience or cultural mind set. Colossians 2:20 is a good scripture for all of us to underline in red. “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules:”

Well, that is a good question, isn’t it? If I know in my head what to do and not do here in this culture, why am I still stuck in America-land in my thinking. I work so hard to study the language, let me also work just as hard to apply the Word of God to changing my thinking behind the language.

I’ll end with this post with a plea: Please pray for me. I really need it and I can’t do without it. As Paul says in Philippians 3:12 “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”

I don’t bare my soul in these blogs for kicks or as some public penance. I tell you these things because I covet –  not your sympathy, your understanding or even your advice; I covet your PRAYERS.

Thank you,



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