The intention of a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out. -Proverbs 20:5-
Understanding a new language is difficult, but understanding a new culture and way of life is much harder.
Last week, during market day, we were mingling among the people as usual, when a man approached us. We’d never seen him before and he was dressed head to toe in ancestral garb. Everyone gathered around as he said:
Kowiŋ sara kenerokoro Sarikongo umbuteno.
He said more than that, but I understood his main point clear as day: I came down from Sari in order to see the white-skinned people. He was here to talk with us. He presented me with a traditional wooden bowl. As I stepped forward to take it from him I could see that there were other gifts inside the bowl: two small red onions, a few green onions, some passion fruit, a white stone, a stone axe head, what appeared to be a glass lens, and a folded sheet of paper. As I took it he whispered in my ear that he wanted me to read the note and talk with him about it later.
No gift is free. Everything comes with strings attached.
The public ordeal was over. I’ve been involved in enough transactions here to know that I was in way over my head. Gifts are almost never given publicly, so this was something new. Food from the garden, stones, and glass are all laden with cultural significance. And a secret note?! This gift was a loaded gun and I was uncertain about how to respond.
Everyone stared at us as we walked with our visitor through the village toward our house. As we sat down by the front door he introduced himself. We spoke casually about a number of things. He preferred to speak to me in the Ndo langauge, which was very flattering and great practice. Though I understood most of the words he was using, I knew I wasn’t fully understanding the reason why he’d come to speak with me.
Eventually, we got around to opening the note. To my surprise it was written in perfect English. Then I realized what I was looking at. It was a copy of an Australian furniture store advertisement written out verbatim on a sheet of lined paper. The only departure from the original advertisement was a note about how to deposit money into a particular bank account. The man proceeded to tell me that he had a relationship with the owner of this store and wanted me to contact him in order to set up a business relationship between him and this furniture store. It took a while to explain to him that I do not know anyone who works with King Furniture and could not make calls to Australia for him.
He did not seem too disappointed at having his first request denied. He then leaned close to me and whispered a bunch of requests. He wanted help with funds to start a business… No. He wanted an iPhone… Sorry. He wanted me to help post pictures of precious metals to the internet so he could find buyers… Nope.
At this point, I explained to him why we’ve come to these mountains. We are not here to make money, mine resources, start businesses, provide medicine, or give away iPhones or smoothie machines (TIMS anyone?). We are here to proclaim God’s Word to them in their language so they can hear what God has revealed about himself, us, and this world in which we live. And though we live in Mawerero, we are here to share God’s Word with everyone in the Ndo-speaking world, including his village.
Interestingly, this man took back the white stone when he realized we were not geologists. And he took back the sheet of paper when he realized we were not here to start a business. And he took back the stone axe head and glass lens when he realized we were not going to buy artifacts from him. In the end, he wanted us to keep the bowl and the onions as a token of his thanks for coming to share God’s word.
And then he changed out of his tradition garb and left.
Later that same week, I was talking to a friend about how he was going to approach his neighbor about a sensitive issue. He told me he would not address the issue directly, but rather talk around the issue. He said, “I am going to box talk.” He will talk around the edge of the issue, but the neighbor will have to “open the box” himself in order to understand the hidden talk inside.
I wonder if that is what our strange visitor was doing. Instead of directly asking us why we are here in the mountains, he may have used a variety of requests to see how we would respond and thereby make his own deductions.
But the reality is, we still do not fully know why he came nor what he’ll expect in return for his gifts.
I share this story to paint a picture of what culture learning is like for us. Situations like this come up from time to time, and they are so new and foreign to us that it is hard to know what it means and how to respond. At this point in our culture acquisition, we tend to learn most things in hindsight.
Pray that we would continue to be humble, patient students of the people here. Pray that we would not cease to ask for wisdom from God, who has always known what we do not. Proverbs 20:5 tells us that the true thoughts and intentions of the heart are deep and not easy to grasp, and Jeremiah reminds us that the human heart is deceitful. Understanding our own motives can often be elusive, let alone understanding the beliefs and motives of others. But praise be to God that he knows the human heart (Jeremiah 17:10), and his Word is sharp and piercing such that it can discern our deepest thoughts and intentions (Hebrews 4:12-13), and only he (not we) can change dead, stony hearts into living ones (Ezekiel 11:19; Ephesians 2:5). May we diligently learn the language and culture here so that we might faithfully preach the Word, and may that Word come in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction (1 Thessolonians 1:5)!