Who Are You? Africa Answers.
When I stepped foot in Sierra Leone one year ago I expected to learn quite a bit about Sierra Leone, but I had no idea how much I would learn about myself.
I didn’t need my college degree to realize that people here are different. I came to the country to serve people but I quickly realized it would be hard to serve people without properly relating to them. There was a chasm between me and Sierra Leone, and so I did what any recent college graduate would do when they need to learn a concept: I went to the library. Determined to master the local language to bridge the chasm, I shut my door and put my nose inside my 1985 Peace Corps Krio Manual. After some time I achieved what I set out for: I could speak with Sierra Leoneans in their own language. Done! Well, not really. I could speak and understand the words, but for some reason the chasm remained. I was under the impression that words are just that: words.
What I didn’t realize was that words come from somewhere. They’ve been built inside of you long before they exit your mouth. When one speaks, he or she brings a concept into existence. By the same logic, that spoken concept originated from the speaker. Words are icons of how people see themselves and the world around them. It’s the reason why learning language is imperative for cultural immersion. Words are structured together, and that order resembles the intrinsic structure of how the speaker perceives the world. I understood culture to be extrinsic, something to be noticed: the food people eat, the way they dress, the words they speak. I was under the delusion that I could think outside my own language, culture and tradition, but I had a shallow understanding of what culture and tradition is.
I came to realize that the only way of bridging the chasm was to approach Sierra Leone anthropologically. Why do people value and emphasize certain things and give little or no regard to others? If I really wanted to communicate with people I would have to deeply immerse myself daily to gain a better social understanding. I would have to ask questions and do research to increase my historical understanding.
This investigation is exhilarating: when you can connect concepts of history and tradition to the actions and motivations of people you begin to see things clearly. This is the groundwork for effective communication and authentic relationships.
This cultural investigation naturally led me to reflect: “If these people act like this because of that and say X because of Y then what is it that makes me act and speak the way I do?” I began to reflect upon the history and ideologies that have shaped America, and therefore shaped Americans. The things that have shaped me.
In an essay titled “What is America? G.K. Chesterton says, “The experiment of a democracy of diverse races has been compared to a melting-pot. But even that metaphor implies that the pot itself is of a certain shape and a certain substance.” But what shape? What substance? It took climbing out of the melting-pot for me to reflect on and comprehend its shape and substance. In the same way that a multitude of factors have born the ethos (the way people relate to others and perceive how culture is organized) of Sierra Leoneans, Americans do not exist above or apart from historical and sociopolitical forces. Tom Hanks in the American classic You’ve Got Mail comments on how Americans love every chance they get to fortify their individualism: “For only $2.95 you can get an absolute defining sense of self: tall, decaf, cappuccino.”
There is no problem with desiring a strong sense of self but are we losing the forest for the trees? It’s a common blunder to disregard how commonplace it is to enter a coffee shop, read the New York Times and strike up a conversation with a stranger about the 4th quarter of the Denver Broncos game. In the quest to prove individuality within the framework of our culture we too often forget that the framework is indeed there. Your framework is individuality. It’s mine too. We can’t avoid the frame. Choosing individualism as our cultural framework does not free us from the restraints of culture.
This is important because other parts of the world don’t share this framework. And, unlike us, they are trained to value the framework by calling it tradition. I mean, try finding a coffee shop in Kailahun, Sierra Leone. (No really, please try, and let me know if you find one). I am not placing value judgments on the forces that give Americans their ethos, but I am also not denying that there are indeed forces.
What happens when I encounter a Sierra Leonean is pretty much exactly what you would expect: Misunderstanding. And not just one of language. One that is rather a product of projecting one’s ethos onto another. Chesterton speaks a warning to this point:
“No one should be ashamed of thinking a thing funny because it is foreign; he should be ashamed of thinking it wrong because it is funny. The mind which imagines that mere unfamiliarity can possibly prove anything about inferiority is a very inadequate mind. A man is perfectly entitled to laugh at a thing because he happens to find it incomprehensible. What he has no right to do is laugh at it as incomprehensible, and then criticize it as if he comprehended it.”
This statement is not an endorsement of cultural relativism. It is rather a two-fold plea to examine our own ethos more closely and to approach other cultures with humility. Any FTF Field Worker will tell you that the best way to undertake these two tasks is to undertake them together. When I stepped foot into Sierra Leone I couldn’t imagine how much I would learn about America. I couldn’t imagine how much I would learn about myself.
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