In recent blogs I told the story of becoming Khulu (Uncle) for a young man meeting his prospective parents-in-law in a Zimbabwean family now living in Manitoba. I told also of the way that Lois became the Aunt who performed a similar task for another family, in which a Zimbabwean got engaged to a Manitoba Mennonite young man.
Here I reflect on the experiences a bit, along the lines of treating our experiences as participant-observation in Zimbabwean culture. So, some lessons learned:
1. Knowing about something is not the same as doing it. The only way to really learn something is to do it. Africans in Zimbabwe and elsewhere have known this all along. David Maranz (in African Friends and Money Matters) observes that Africans give information when it is needed, not as an abstract piece of information separate from real life. Canadians (and Americans) sometimes treat knowledge as something detached from life. I think Zimbabweans get this one right.
2. Canadians (and Americans) value direct speech. “Look at me when you talk to me.” “Tell me what you want. Don’t beat about the bush.” Africans are often less direct, not stating what they are saying directly, but hinting at it; not looking up at the other person as if challenging them, but down or sideways out of respect for the other’s authority.
There are strengths to both systems of communication. One strength of indirection is to force both parties to pay attention to the clues that go with the conversation. Another strength is that the intermediaries in the conversation—such as those who carried the question from the young couple to the parents, and then carried the answer back—are also witnesses to the conversation. As our friends told us, if this couple has trouble later, these witnesses are there to help. This is a real strength.
Another strength indirection is to defuse the stress of confrontation. David Augsburger (Culture and Conflict Mediation) has written well about the value of a mediator to relieve excessive stress. Zimbabweans also know about this benefit.
3. The willingness to submit to cultural values counts for more than knowing how to do everything just right. In the case where I acted as the Khulu (or Uncle), the young man’s willingness to sit quietly while someone else pleaded his case spoke loudly to the family. They saw that he was willing to do what is right as much by his silence as by anything else.
I’m sure that there are many more lessons I could state, but that’s enough for now. The ceremony of indirection is a gift my Zimbabwean friends have given me. Not one I would have expected, and not one I’m sure I know how to use, but a gift of great value.