My family and I were blessed to live in the country of Peru for four years, we LOVED it. The people, the food, the language are all things we miss, but it was not always wonderful. There were definitely frustrating days at language school, cultural faux pas, and days when I missed the comforts of America, and most of all family. But I can honestly say that Peru became home for us. We adapted to a different way of doing things, we eventually became more comfortable in the language and made life long friends. It was so hard to leave. I can’t even think about it right now without crying.
But the Lord has led our family to a new place to call home; Port Elizabeth, South Africa. I really wasn’t terribly nervous about moving here. How hard could it be? After all, we had already done this: new place, new language, new culture. Well, the phrase “pride goes before the fall” really came into play at that point. Let me just say that learning the Xhosa language is by far the hardest thing I have ever attempted in my life. That being said, I believe that learning the language of the people you are trying to win to Christ is the key to cultural adaptation. First of all, it shows them that you care. Secondly, I believe that you will forever feel like an outsider if you neglect to learn the language. And that is, after all, a crucial step in winning people to the Lord and discipling them. We want to be insiders (you know that feeling when you are left out of an inside joke? Well, that is pretty much life until you learn a new language:), we want to be a part of their community: eat with them, spend time with them, understand them. How can we do that if we neglect conversation? With most Xhosa people here speaking some English as well, the temptation is to resort to that. But learning someone’s heart language to be able to talk to them, completely changes the level of your relationship.
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. -Nelson Mandela
Language learning must be intentional. It is easy to hide in your home and make excuses (especially when you have little ones to keep you busy;) I have found it even easier to avoid language learning here. The culture here is very difficult to explain, you really have to experience it to understand. Due to South Africa’s history, there is still much separation between the white and black cultures. For the safety of our family we have chosen to live “in town” and our church is located about 20 minutes away in what is referred to as a township/location (an entirely black community on the outskirts of town.) English is the business language of Port Elizabeth, so many of our day to day activities will not involve speaking Xhosa. We are not immersed in the Xhosa language and culture unless we do so intentionally. I believe the key is just jumping in and surrounding yourself on a daily basis. Humility and patience play a huge role in cultural adaptation. You have to be ready to feel like you are in kindergarten all over again. Lost and confused most of the time, but with a smile on your face and ready to laugh at your own mistakes.
One of the things I really enjoy about the Xhosa culture is the strong sense of community. It seems that everybody knows everybody. Front doors are always open, with people coming and going to visit. Someone will begin to describe their family to you and before long you have counted 10 or 15 children in one family! I have recently come to realize that everyone is a brother or sister, whether they are a cousin, close friend or actual sibling. Everyone belongs.
The Xhosa culture is also a very financially poor culture that has had many difficulties and hardships over the years. Something I have struggled with personally, is remembering why we are here and what we are doing. It is very easy to sometimes become engrossed in problems and circumstances and the like. If only we could do something to help the education system, if only we could improve healthcare, if only we could improve the crime rate, living conditions, etc…. But what is the real reason we are here? Not to change a culture and try to create a better lifestyle or living conditions. Yes, of course, we help with those things along the way as we can (James 2:16), but all the while remembering – I am not here to change circumstances, but to introduce a people to the One who can completely change their hearts and eternity. God has called us to help create a new culture here. Not a white or black culture or an American or Xhosa culture, but a Christ-centered culture. I guess that is why the main focus of my post today has been adapting to culture through language acquisition. The Gospel will cross all barriers: language, cultural differences, and geography. It just needs a few people who are willing to become fools for Christ.