Mponela, Malawi … Mission work is difficult. The work is hard enough, but when one makes it cross-cultural, it adds a whole new dimension to the attempt at understanding. For instance, I remember the time I asked the preacher, “Do you have mamba snakes here?” He replied, “Yes.” “What happens if you get bitten?” I asked, “You die!” Somehow that was not exactly what I wanted to hear. In the U.S. one would condition that answer a bit. Not in Malawi, it was brief, to the point and factually very correct.
Another question arose while observing a group of about 5,000 people at a big outdoor meeting in the dry season. “What happens if you are out like this in the rainy season,” I asked, thinking he would respond with some kind of action to get in out of the weather. No, his answer was again brief and to the point. “You get wet!” (I have wondered ever since if he looked back at that question and wondered what kind of world it was like in America where people questioned if you get wet when you are in a rainstorm!
Now for one of the real clinchers in the minefield of cultural understanding.
“How far is it to the big meeting tomorrow morning,” I asked. “It is just near,” I was told. Ok, no problem. We can advise the team it will be close by. That is not the way it turned, it was in fact 30 kilometers away. Oh, well, let that one go.
Two weeks later another big meeting, “How far will it be?” “Oh, it is just near!” Ok, let’s see how this one plays out. 65 minutes later we pull into a village after a harrowing ride down rutted, rock infested, dirt paths for a very great distance.
After hearing “just near” over and over for about three years I finally set out to call a halt to it. The next time I was told, “Just near.” I interrupted. “But how many kilometers?” It was 50. “Now that is not ‘just near’ I responded.” “Oh, but it is. You see when you travel in a galimoto (car) as you Americans do it is easy to travel long distances. The destinations are ‘just near’ with the ease and speed of a galimoto. But when you walk everywhere as we Malawians do, anywhere is a long distance; it is ‘just far’”.
Now I understand. Cross-cultural language is hard to comprehend. I needed to ask, “How long will it take”, or “How many kilometers is it?” That was what we really wanted to know, and besides asking it that way would give us the answer for which the Americans were actually searching. We just needed to understand how to ask the question correctly and learn what they meant by the answer.