Connie’s cultural trials and triumphs
By Kate Azumah
The dead woman had been a member of the church during her life. All seemed well at the burial until a local woman approached the pastor’s wife, Connie. Referring to the dead body, the woman whispered, “Look at our sister; she hasn’t bathed in a long time. We should give her a bath, don’t you think so?” Connie agreed, and the woman continued, “We are boiling water and herbs for the traditional cleansing. You will be the first to bathe her.” Connie reveals, “I nearly fainted; more so when I remembered she had died from cholera!” As the pastor’s wife, Connie didn’t expect to have anything to do with the corpse. Back home in South Africa, undertakers handled everything.
Constance (Connie) Mohapi Arão and her husband are missionaries in one of the squatter communities around Nampula, a town in Northern Mozambique. She had taken cross-cultural training at mission school, but once on the field, all her fantasies about missionary life dissipated as she faced one cultural hiccup after another. She did not imagine her transition into another African culture could be so frustrating!
Learning language is the key
“My first challenge was the language; I couldn’t speak it. I dreaded going out because I’d have to speak it to buy items at the shops and to interact with people. I resorted to smiling a lot when I didn’t understand anything they said. I smiled my way out of bathing the corpse too, and politely passed the task to someone else.”
“To learn the language, I spent time with the people and listened to them. I carried a small book to record words and sentences in Portuguese, and practiced speaking it often. You cannot learn a language any other way; you must speak it, even if you sound ridiculous in the attempt.”
Her breakthrough with the culture came after she learnt the language.
After 23 years in the field, Connie’s fluency in Portuguese is now about 90 per cent. Between the demands of mission work and raising a family, she couldn’t master the local language, Makhua, as much, but she understands some of it. Connie says her breakthrough with the culture came after she learnt the language.
A conflict of cultures
Settling in a new culture is challenging. The differences in Connie’s original culture and her new culture were glaring and confusing. One difference was when she got invited for meals. “They would lead me to sit at the table, and then everyone would disappear for the next hour. It was puzzling. In South Africa, the host serves you the food and sits with you as you eat. Here, vanishing from sight is a way of honouring guests, so they can enjoy their meals in private.”
Another disappointment was their cold response when she gave them gifts. In her Batswana culture, people would shower the giver with three expressive “thank you’s”, open the gift in the giver’s presence and say another “thank you” afterwards. “I could not understand why these people would say only one unfeeling “thank you”, hide the gift away, and look at it after you’re gone.” Connie attempted to teach them from the Scriptures to be more demonstrative with their gratitude. Later, she recognized that they showed appreciation in their unique way and she needn’t force them to be like her Batswana people. “Our cultures may be different, but each is valid; neither is superior to the other,” she says.
Beneath the surface
It’s easy to assume that culture comprises only the outward elements visible to the observer. Some of Connie’s experiences reveal the hidden mindsets and worldviews that account for people’s behaviours and responses to the Gospel.
Connie and her husband are not only concerned for the souls of those they have been called to love and live among. Poverty is common in their community, so they try to meet the felt needs of the people as well. James* is a church member they supported, until Connie’s husband decided to share some ideas to make him more self-sufficient and independent. James’ response unveiled a sad mentality: “I don’t have to be empowered. My job is to pray for God to bless you so that you will keep helping me.” Connie attributes this attitude to low self-esteem and an element in the local religion that normalizes begging.
James is not the only one with this belief. The girls are taught early to “buy soap for themselves”—find a man to provide their needs—and often end up with more children whom they are further burdened to care for. “There are stories and influences behind a person’s behaviour, and this has taught me not to be judgemental. Sometimes, people know no better than how they have been raised.” Connie advises missionaries to go down to the people and know who they are at a deep level; otherwise, their Christian response will be superficial. “People may come to the Lord alright but still be affected by their brokenness.”
A long road
Connie has seen many missionaries come to her community and expect change overnight. It doesn’t help when mission agencies put pressure on them to perform within two years. Connie says it can take at least five years to build trust and convince the people to open up. “You need to be humble and respect them. The best missionary is the one who is like a child and who listens.”
One of Connie’s biggest lessons is that structured manuals don’t work—at least not in the culture she has been called to. She used to outline her teachings and then would go and deliver. By her next visit, her “students” wouldn’t remember a thing. She confesses that as an energetic gogetter, their slow pace exhausted her patience. Now, she employs a more effective method. “Pray for them, depend on the Holy Spirit, and just go and listen. As I listen to them, God leads me to share what will speak to their situations.”
Rosa* was once a character who, immediately after attending church service, would go drinking with her Bible in hand. Today, she’s transformed. She’s a respected member of the community, and helps Connie with teaching the other women. James is also doing better than before.
Another point of transformation is the local culture of initiation for girls. The church doesn’t support some of the things the community teaches because it makes the girls sexually promiscuous. They responded by organizing a Christian alternative where mature women in the church teach the younger girls about hygiene and sexual purity as they transition into womanhood.
A missionary’s motivation
Despite the difficulties of ministering in a different culture, Connie loves the people. She wants them to make it to heaven, and also experience God’s victory while on earth. “I pray for them a lot. I ask God to open their eyes to see how they are made in His image and to understand His Word.” People like Rosa and James are not the only ones who are changing. Connie is changing too, as she immerses herself in their lives to understand and reach them—just like Jesus did.
*Not their real names
PRAY FOR: More local people to support Connie and her husband, and to continue their work.