African view on short-term outreaches
Oxcar Muriu, Nairobi Chapel pastor (summarised version of an interview with him)
Do short-term mission trips help?
They work for the West; they don’t work for us very well. We don’t call them “short-term missions” any more. We call them “short-term learning opportunities.” The problem with calling it a mission is that it implies an agenda. There’s something I need to come and do for you, or to you, to better your life. In reality that doesn't happen in two weeks. Life is far too complex for that.
The greatest benefit is that you come and you learn. Unfortunately, not enough short-termers are listening to the two-thirds world, who receive them.
Americans tend to be very poorly informed about the world. America generates enough news on its own that its news organizations don’t have space for international news. Yet America exports so many movies and so much news that everybody around the world knows about America, whereas the American knows about nobody.
So what happens when there is an interchange?
As a Kenyan I was quite familiar with America long before the first time I came here. The culture shock for me is minimal. But Americans know almost nothing about Kenya. And so the culture shock when they come is very deep.
Some of them see destitute poverty for the first time ever. When you see poverty in America, on your television, it is sanitized. But the first marker of poverty is that it smells. That’s how you know real poverty: It smell. I have watched short-term missioners come in, and I've realized, “Oh boy, we need to go and debrief quickly. Because they’re weeping, they’re broken, they have an immense sense of guilt.” This is more about them than it is about what they came to do.
Are such “learning experiences” the best use of our resources?
The problem for Americans is that if a church isn't doing these things, its isn’t cool, and the youth program isn't cool. So there’s a lot of pressure for all youth programs to do this. Short-term experiences have their place, but they need to be more carefully constructed. All too often a church says, “We’d like to come for a short-term experience.”
Then they say, in so many words, “We’re going to do A, B, D, D, and we’re in charge.”
We want to say, “Guys, you’re coming as our guests.”
Do you know that when the President of the United States travels, his people take over all the security of the nations he travels to? When he came to East Africa, the airports were completely taken over by Marines. We’ll do things our way. Short term missionaries tend to be like that: they come and completely take over the agenda, the programs, the life of the church. But that’s not the way you visit a friend.
Besides bringing an agenda, what tends to distinguish the American personality?
Americans have two great things going for them culturally. One is that Americans are problem-solvers. Every time I come to the U.S., I like to spend a couple hours in a Wal-Mart. I find solutions to problems that I never thought of!
The rest of the world, even Europe, isn't so intent on solving inconveniences. We tend to live with our problems. In America you almost never go into a house where the sinks have two taps, a cold water tap and a hot water tap, because that means you have to mix the water in the sink to get it to the right temperature. You have these single faucets that mix the water before it comes out. It makes perfect sense. But that’s a problem the rest of the world wouldn't even think to solve. Americans don’t easily live with a problem - they want to solve the problem and move on. The rest of the world is more willing to live with the problems.
The second great thing for Americans is that your educational system teaches people to think and to express themselves. So a child who talks and asserts himself in conversation is actually awarded higher marks than the one who sits quietly.
How are these straits seen and talked about, in Africa?
Those two things that are such great gifts in the home context become a curse when you go into missions. Americans come to Africa, ant they want to solve Africa. But you can’t solve Africa. It’s much too complex for that. And that really frustrates Americans.
And the assertiveness you are taught in school becomes a curse on the field. I often say to American missionaries, “When the American speaks, the conversation is over.” The American is usually the most powerful voice at the table. And when the most powerful voice gives its opinion, the conversation is over.
So what should talkative, problem-solving Americans do?
I tell Americans: “We're going into this meeting. Don’t say anything! Sit there and hold your tongue.” When you sit around a table, the people speaking always glance at the person they believe is the most powerful figure at the table. They will do that with you when you’re the only American. And at some point, they will ask you: “What do you think?”
Don’t say anything. If you say anything, reflect back with something like “I have heard such wisdom at this table. I am very impressed.” And leave it at that. Affirm them for the contribution they have made. Don’t give your opinion.
Americans find that almost impossible. They do not know how to hold their tongue. They sit there squirming, because they’re conditioned to express their opinions. It’s strength at home, but it becomes a curse on the field.
In a sense western missions has been marked by that. But isn't it strange that Jesus not only entered society incarnate at the weakest point, as a defenceless child who needed the care of his host community, but he also told his disciples” “Do not go with money; do not go with a second pair of shoes; go in a stance of vulnerability; be dependent on the communities you visit”? Isn't it interesting that for 30 years he doesn't speak out; doesn't reveal himself; he remains quiet, and only after 30 years of listening and learning the culture does he begin to speak.
So how can Americans communicate well with Africans?
When we communicate in Africa, we are very guarded in what we say. We don’t want to offend. Westerners way that Africans never tell you what they really think. They tell you what you want to hear. And yes, that’s true! Because from our perspective, every engagement between two people always has the potential of leading to a lifelong relationship, or preventing a lifelong friendship.
Africa is a very relational continent. It’s the relationships that make society work. In the U.S. things work irrespective of relationships; in fact, if you have a relationship, it can sometimes work against you. In Africa it’s the opposite. So we are always guarded and gracious in our communication. We want to guard the relationship. When the Bible says, “Speak the truth in love,” we err on the side of love. The possibility of a relationship means I cannot tell you the total truth until I am secure in this relationship with you, until I know that the truth will not hurt this relationship.
You do it differently. Speaking the truth has a higher premium in your context, so you are unguarded. You speak the truth, call a spade a spade, at whatever cost. And if the relationship suffers, well, that’s too bad, the important thing is that the truth was spoken.
We never do that. I've had to learn to be more assertive in my dealings with Americans just so thay would hear me! I have had to learn to speak truth more directly. Americans have to learn to listen to the relational side of things.
Your church has developed some deep partnerships with churches in the United States. What have been the key ingredients of those partnerships?
In each of these churches it’s been important to find a bridging relationship-someone who comes in quietly, speaks slowly, is a good listener, and is trying to learn.