DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Becoming Less Muzungu

Written by: on September 17, 2019

Muzungu.

This is one of the first words I heard come out of the mouths of children running down dusty, bumpy roads as I traveled to home visits for my sponsored children when visiting Rwanda the first time. Extracting exactly what it meant depended on whom I spoke with. Some mentioned it meant a person with “white skin.” Others responded the word references a person “spinning around in the same spot,” which evidently is how many Westerners are perceived to behave when visiting African countries. Literally, it means, “someone who roams around; a wanderer.”[1]It is a word I have heard countless times during my seven journeys serving with an organization that is near to my heart, Africa New Life Ministries (ANLM).

While the focus of each visit to Rwanda has been different, opportunities to build relationships through mutual understanding and trust are ever present. My last two trips have been spent teaching a two-week course on spiritual disciplines to some of the brightest young women in the country. These women have been awarded a full scholarship for their university education through ANLM’s Esther Scholarship Program. Since the academic calendar year varies between secondary and university institutions, these women have a “gap year” where they participate in mini sessions covering everything from practical life skills, to leadership and biblical studies, over the span of six-month.

Though I had visited Rwanda numerous times, I knew in my mind that I was underprepared to fully understand the cultural nuances of a classroom setting. That element, combined with the fact I had never actually taught in a classroom setting, compelled me to reach out to a local pastor who had taught often at ANLM’s Africa College of Theology on a consistent basis. He shared insights on what to expect and how to navigate teaching in a culture that is so very different than my American context. I also gathered information from a friend of mine who had lived in Rwanda and had worked with college students for two years. Their guidance was invaluable.

Reflecting on my experiences in relation with Erin Meyer’s shared expertise in The Culture Map has been enlightening, challenging, and affirming.[2] Relative to the United States, Rwanda is highly contextual in their communication style. Spoken and un-spoken language predominates in this developing nation, where written resources were once scarce. Story infuses most conversations and creates “visual” pictures through verbal imagery. Traditional song and dance also aid in communicating cultural values and norms. I learned very early on to speak slowly (not patronizingly so, though), use minimal personally contextual metaphors, and allow considerable time for listening and discussion, so that the students and I have space to navigate our different communication styles.

In regard to evaluations, I am uncertain where Rwanda falls on The Culture Map spectrum. I am careful to give feedback in a positive and constructive way, though I’m not sure how that feedback has been received. At the end of each course, the students complete an evaluation form on each instructor. The evaluations I have received have been positive, with very little constructive criticisms. I’m not sure if this is because I am amazing, or if this is an established cultural norm. I will definitely follow up with the program supervisor to discern how best to interpret the evaluation feedback.

When it comes to leading, Rwandans value education and experience, and seem to  embrace a more hierarchical leadership model. As a person who possesses a master’s degree, I am treated with respect and honor. True to my American form, I leverage this position in the classroom by graciously inviting the students to try new spiritual practices and highly encouraging dialogue around each topic. I encourage open and honest feedback after each teaching and activity time. After a couple days together, some students feel comfortable enough to share their honest opinions; others simply sit quiet. The ones who give me their negative thoughts are my favorite, because I know on some level I have earned their trust and they feel safe to verbalize contrary beliefs. I know in other academic settings, such disagreement would likely not happen.

Because my leadership style is also more egalitarian, I am able to connect quickly with Rwandans propensity of developing trust through relationship building. I learned early on from Pastor Charles Mugisha that Rwandans love hosting others in their country. If given the choice between people sending financial aid or coming to visit their land, Rwandans prefer people come visit their land. Their generous spirit and hospitable heart make most visitors feel welcome. This is clearly demonstrated in their “It’s no problem” disposition, which reveals their desire to avoid confrontation; if a “No” is required, it usually takes substantial conversation and reading between the lines to determine that information. Knowing this, I am very careful about requests I make, because I know they will go out of their way most every time to make something happen.

One of the starkest contrasts between Rwanda and the US is in their scheduling styles. In my class, each time I share the quote, “Americans have watches, but Rwandans have time,” I hear giggles from the women. This quote embodies all that is Muzungu: a rushed disposition focused on task-oriented relationships built through goal-oriented activities that are conducted in an efficient and timely manner.

Whew. Now take a breath.

But that is the complete opposite of how Rwandans operate. Instead, schedules are held loosely. Things may or may not happen, though they usually do…eventually. In fact, when teaching I plan the three-hour course outline for each day, then remove 45 minutes to an hour of content for late arrivals and extended morning teatime. Arrivals are late because transportation is unpredictable, as is health and other unforeseen circumstances. Tea time is often 30-40 minutes long, simply because the tea and breads may not be ready when scheduled, and if they are, the partaking of this breakfast happens over time, conversation, and much laughter.

Relationship trumps schedules. Always.

For me, being able to go to Rwanda is a gift from God that I never knew I needed. What I’ve learned from my Rwandan friends is that I need the slower pace, the different perspectives, and the beauty that is revealed when listening in between the lines for the heart that beats underneath. I need the joy and laughter that comes from relaxed meals, casual conversations, and hope-filled hospitality. I need the love that unfolds slowly, with no other agenda that to know and be known. I need to return to the sweet, smoky-smelling land where, if I am paying close attention, I see divine miracles happen around every corner. And lastly, Rwanda has gifted me with the experience that becoming less and less muzungu is a fabulously good thing, and one I hope, over time, becomes more evident in my disposition within the American context where I reside most of my days.

                  [1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mzungu.

                  [2]Erin Meyer. The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business(USA: Public Affairs, 2014), utilized line graphs on 41, 69, 125, 171, 201, 227.

About the Author

mm

Darcy Hansen

8 responses to “Becoming Less Muzungu”

  1. mm Steve Wingate says:

    “…is a gift from God that I never knew I needed.”

    What do we do to know how to give gifts that will recipient will understand that our gift is good?

    Jesus Christ was a good gift yet not received by most

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Steve, I think the way we share the Gospel matters. Just like in business matters, if we share information in a way that isn’t received well by another culture, then it’s not the message that’s rejected, but rather the way it was delivered. As Westerners, we often think our way is the best way, and that Jesus should be experienced and “look” like the Jesus we have encountered. Sadly, I think such a presentation of the Gospel has done much damage over time and has made Jesus quite unappealing. As we’ve seen in the text, we have to be cognizant of the key ways of communicating and interacting with others if we want a message to be received.

  2. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Darcy, I’m reminded of a phrase we teach our new missionaries as they go for the first time: “It’s not weird, it’s different.” When they see chicken feet served, I like to say, “If anything is weird, it’s butchering an animal and only eating the breast meat. What a waste.”
    In your experience, how to you balance or do a both-and recruiting pitch that emphasizes both that we do have something to offer as we go – the gospel – yet we will also receive a gift from God in perspective and growth in understanding of Him, His work, and the fullness of the body of Christ?

    • mm Darcy Hansen says:

      Shawn, I present everything as an invitation. Its is open ended and people are absolutely allowed to say no. In the classroom settings where I serve, all the women are followers of Christ, so I don’t have to pitch Jesus to them. But what I do have to do is invite them into freedom, as opposed to the often shame driven religiosity they (as well as Westerners) exist in. I present alternative practices. Ask them to give it a try. Tell them if they hate it, it’s ok. I also ask a ton of questions to learn how things operate in their culture. I am a learner and try to host a space that allows for mutuality of learning in that space. I still have a ton to learn though! Each time I go to Rwanda, I learn new things. I probably always will:)

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Darcy, excellent insights. I am reminded of my trip to Bali years ago as a member of a masters commission team on a short term mission. My main job was just keeping the young people on task and allowing them to minister. When we entered home churches it became hugely obvious that I was more to the Indonesian people than a chaperone/coach to the college students. I was the oldest male in the team which elevated me to the title of Uncle with the responsibility to bless every member of the house church after each meeting. It was life changing to see that my age alone commanded a level of respect that so often doesn’t exist in the US. Since that time I have never failed to honor ones age when the situation allows. What would you say is the greatest insight that sticks with you from your travels to Rwanda?

    • Darcy Hansen says:

      Greg,
      The one thing I always walk away from there thinking is that Rwandans have the most beautiful ability to share their gift of hospitality. Regardless if you’re in a swanky new restaurant or sitting on a woven mat in a mud home, I have always felt welcome. It’s not so much the gift of space they offer, but more the gift of their full presence in those spaces. There’s a generosity of spirit there that I admire and hope to replicate in my little corner of the world.

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    I’ve been learning that there’s hardly any substitute for personal experience when it comes to learning and appreciating others in their cultural context. Nothing has been more powerful in changing hearts in my ministry settings than the one-on-one connections we make in various countries. When we get past our “I’m an American and I’m here to help” mindset and truly seek to learn and love, we get a little closer to the kinship of God.

  5. Nancy Blackman says:

    Darcy,
    Your post reminds me of all the scheduling that occurs with Westerners and how much more is exchanged when there is what I refer to as holy interruptions.

    Often travelling to new countries and embracing their culture (as best as one can) requires letting go of who we are but not letting go of who we are.

    Can’t wait to see you soon!
    Nancy

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