Observing Culture: Traveling

Posted on January 15, 2013


By Clarissa

Yes, another post on culture. Why? Because I think about it a lot. I believe God loves the variety of culture on this planet. AND the more I am able to understand the people around me, the better I can be a good friend to them.

I am learning more to read between the lines. When you first arrive in a new land there are dozens of things that are immediately noticed as different: hey, that may is wearing just a blanket, or why are donkeys pulling a cart sharing the road with cars going 50 mph?

As time goes by you begin to notice more subtle things: The way a man interacts with his wife in public, or the myriad of greetings that happen before even the most brief conversation.

And then there are the hidden aspects of culture that could easily go unnoticed unless I was really paying attention, reading between the lines. Having eyes to see what really makes a person tick . Today I realized one of those things.

I was talking with a Kenyan friend who has family upcountry (outside the city).
I asked her, “How far is it to your family’s farm?”
Her response, “It is 800 shillings.”
Thinking perhaps she was confused, I reworded my question, “How long does it take to go to see your family?”
Again, she says, “800 shillings.”

After further questioning I was able to get the name of an actual city near where her family is, and then using my very limited knowledge of Kenyan geography I was able to get a general idea of the distance.

A few hours later I was reflecting on the conversation and I realized it was not the first time I had had such a conversation. A few weeks previous I asked a different Kenyan friend about how far they would be traveling for Christmas and they also responded with the monetary amount of the bus far.

By reading between the lines of their responses, i began to see what their answers could tell me much more than just the cost to get someplace.

1. Their answers reveal that the time to get someplace is not so important. This is either because arriving someplace at a scheduled time is nearly impossible with poor roads and poor vehicle upkeep or because Africans in general just think a lot less about time.

2. Their answers also reveal how differently people think when they don’t drive. Neither of these women own cars or have drivers licenses. When you never drive, you apparently think a lot less about distance!

3. Their answers reveal that when you are poor, the first thing you always think about is how much something costs.

So, a journey is described by the bus fare to get there. Time is not as important to them and distance is irrelevant. But money, that is something precious because it is scarce.

The observations I made through these conversation were not revolutionary. I was already aware that most Africans have a different perspective on time than westerners do. And I was not naive to the scarcity of funds for many people. However, it is was discovering these things hidden in a seemingly unrelated conversation that alerted me that if I listen well and ask good questions, I can begin to dig below the surface and understand people better.

Of course this applies to more than just cross-cultural interactions. This is true in every relationship. To love people well, we have to see more than just what they tell us at face value. In doing this we can see what are their hopes and their fears— what is truly important to them.  What makes them feel cared for and honored begins to become apparent and then can we begin to see where the gospel speaks into their life as the good news that it is.