How far can contextualisation go?
I believe in contextualisation, of putting off my own cultural baggage to take up another culture. I believe in it as an act of love, because it communicates the dignity of that culture and an act of humility, because it doesn’t assume that my culture is superior.
People like Roberto de Nobili are awesome examples of contextualisation. He became so like those he worked amongst that he forgot his native Italian and had to have an interpreter to write home! That’s pretty hardcore and it’s appealing to me.
But it’s also somewhat simplistic. In Tanzania, my white skin will always set me apart as someone ‘other’.
As I see it, today there are three factors that moderate complete contextualisation.
1. From survive to thrive
My life has been one of wealth and privilege. I have expectations about privacy, personal space and comfort. As much as I’d like to think that love of people could drive me to tolerate the worst conditions, I might not have the psychological make up to handle it! Keeping some elements of home might actually make for longer term sustainability.
2. Coming home
In the nineteenth century, missionaries didn’t expect to come home but these days, we come home every three years; in our case, we’re committing to Tanzania for 10 years, but after that, we’re not sure. So we don’t have the luxury of forgetting our home language or customs. It might work well to parent like Tanzanians when we’re in Africa, but what will this mean for our kids on home assignment? or in 10 years time?
3. Cultural Instinct
For all our good intentions and desire to understand and respect another culture, I expect that there’ll be a point as which we draw a line, where we say ‘this far and no further’. We might have gospel reasons (e.g. lying is acceptable in this culture but I want to let my yes be yes and my no be no); or it might be cultural (e.g. good mothers stay at home with their children). We might not even have a rationale; instinct may just take over.
Like so many other things, the key here is balance but it’s messy. For me, it feels especially raw as we consider developing our parenting style. To raise your kids as cultural Australians who just happen to live in Tanzania is likely to make them quite lonely and it’s tricky to see how it wouldn’t end up in a feeling of cultural superiority. But to raise them in a completely Tanzanian way could be quite confusing and traumatic for them if and when they come home, not to mention being ideologically uncomfortable for us. You have to find another way, or a hybrid. I expect experimentation and adapting our practice over the years will be crucial.
Whatever we decide to do, I suspect someone will judge us. I gather coming to terms with others’ judgement is a normal part of parenting (hello Mommy wars!) but the cultural differences enhance the difficulties. To Australian family, Tanzanian-style parenting might seem permissive; to Tanzanian friends, Australian-style parenting might seem indulgent.
More than anything else, it’s the complexities just of doing life in Tanzania that freak me out! The place where ideals and reality meet is a scary one indeed. We need more than wisdom here. We need faith to step out and try things and we need the grace of God for our mistakes.