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02 October, 2014

So Much to Learn!

This past week we welcomed a family joining WGM Uganda for their first term. This is their “first landing” as missionaries in Uganda. Our team worked together in preparing the house for them, putting together orientation materials, praying through the house and property prior to their habitation of it and making sure we had everything in good order for them. After Jeff came home from meeting them at the airport and getting them and all their luggage off loaded into the new-to-them house he came home and said, “Do you remember the first time we came to Africa? Well, they are all just like we were, exhausted, excited and eager.” We chuckled then soon fell asleep. But the memories keep coming into our conversations even now, a week later. We are still learning a lot about cultural adaptation.

As a young couple with our one year-old daughter we arrived in the middle of the night into the Nairobi, Kenya airport after a skillion hours of travel to get there. It felt like we had missed sleep for weeks. But even in our fog we had some distinct first impressions:
  • policemen with automatic weapons looked us over as we exited the plane onto the gangway
  • the folks in immigration were very kind, quickly moving us to the front of the line saying to all the others waiting in the queue, “You don’t mind, this crying baby must be very tired!”
  • it is dark but not cold at this hour, hmmmm…..
  • we are so glad a WGM missionary was there to greet us as we got off the plane and help us through the process necessary until we got out to the vehicle he had to transport us and all our luggage to his house
  • we spelled “relief” as “t-e-a-m”---what a relief to be part of a team already in place

That state of “fog” stayed with us about a week. Our baby had trouble getting into a good sleep pattern in the new time zone. Every single interaction was full of “new” and “unknown” and took a tremendous amount of mental energy. Conversation began to feel nearly impossible. Christine stayed in the missionary home with little Elizabeth and left Jeff to venture into the unknown world with another missionary. Christine felt a bit cowardly but she could not muster the energy to face going out. In addition to sleeplessness she had difficulty adjusting to the altitude. Nairobi is a little over a mile high, which is significantly higher than the 150 foot elevation we lived at in Oregon.

We stayed in Nairobi two or three days to do business necessary to get our drivers’ licenses in process, meet our teammates and see their ministries in Nairobi and other necessary business. We then rode with other missionaries going home to Tenwek. The missionary driving wanted to stop in Nakuru for shopping. We had absolutely no idea what we needed to purchase, when we would get into a supermarket again, how to figure the Kenyan currency or product names. It wasn’t until much later we learned that raisins are sultanas, cornstarch is corn flour, bleach is jik, and so on.

At Tenwek our apartment was not quite ready for us. Another couple had recently moved out and the painting and minor repairs were completed a couple of days after our arrival. Three or four other missionary families had arrived within a couple of months ahead of us so “extra” furnishings were scarce. Our apartment had two twin beds, a dining table with chairs and a sparsely furnished kitchen. After a day or so of having only the dining chairs to sit on another missionary offered a metal framed couch that we could use. Jeff and I carried it from her house up by the hospital down the road to our apartment. We felt like we had really done something!

After a couple of weeks we found out how to open a bank account in nearby Bomet Town. We had no vehicle so we set out early one morning to walk the 4 miles or so through the hills to and from the bank. We got a bit disoriented along the way but a kind Kenyan man kindly offered to show us the shortest-distance path to Bomet when we asked him which way we should go. He led us through home compounds, cow pastures and sheep folds. It was an excellent cultural learning experience and we were so glad for that kind man guiding us and explaining his culture along the way.

After opening a bank account we bought a snack and some water then headed back to Tenwek. As we left the town it started to rain. And then it rained seriously. And then it poured. All the while we were walking back on the paths, slipping and sliding in the mud, laughing as we said, “Our friends in the U.S. would NEVER believe this adventure we are on just to make a trip to the bank!” We arrived home several hours later, muddy and tired but feeling quite satisfied with ourselves and all we had learned.

The adjustments into another culture should never be underestimated. Everything must be learned. We come with nothing, really, except our assumptions. It isn’t often that our assumptions are correct. Choosing to start with learning how to address people is a good beginning. Listening to what we were told, practicing what we were told to do the way we were told to do it and maintaining a humble posturing in every way helps decrease the steep learning curve.

A friend of ours recently made the cross-cultural transition into heaven. To us he had become an expert in cross-cultural communication. He had close friends in more countries than we could count on two hands and we were privileged to be among them. We feel pretty confident our friend had very little or no culture shock when he entered heaven.

We want to be as prepared as our friend. So, we are “listening” to what we are told all throughout Scripture. God reveals much in His word about His kingdom and how we are to live therein. We continue to practice doing what Jesus tells us to do the way we He tells us to do it. We seek to reflect Jesus accurately as we serve in the body of Christ. Humility is not what comes “naturally” to us but as we intentionally die to self so that Christ might live in us we somehow decrease the steep learning curve. God’s own Spirit guides us and gives us feedback. We practice entering into transformational worship of God so that we are bear more and more of His own image. God’s word tells us living this way will help eliminate culture shock upon our entrance into heaven.

What experiences have you had with cross-cultural adaptation? How are you demonstrating cultural adjustment living in the Kingdom of God? We would love to hear your experiences!

Jeff and Christine