Cultural differences… Sometimes making their presence known in brightly coloured, loud and noisy fashion, sometimes invisibly dividing us into strangers who seem unable, or who have simply forgotten how to understand each other…If only in these moments when the difference between us seems impossible, we could remember that if you turn us all inside out, we are all, in fact, the same…
Sometimes these differences are so subtle, that you do not notice them. Sometimes you stumble across them when it is too late to avert disaster and the small crack that has divided your sameness develops into an abyss and it is nearly impossible to close the distance between you and the otherness of the person in front of you.This difference of Culture can push the possibility of a simple exchange of thoughts and ideas beyond your reach, beyond your understanding, beyond the ability to understand and tolerate each other.
Take humour, for example…This week one of the drivers on my team, Papa Shamba, a wise and widely respected man, asked me if he could put a bag of flour in the car that someone had given him. And I, in mock-horror responded with a “Non!” and then I laughed and then he laughed and it was clear to me that he understood that I was joking…it was of course very good fun…it remained fun and clear until the moment when we were driving away and something possessed me to ask him if he had in fact put the flour in the car and he said no, he hadn’t because I said he couldn’t. I was mortified and of course we turned the car around and I apologized a million times and tried to explain my ridiculous sarcasm to no avail…and that of course he didn’t even need to ask me to put it in the car in the first place. But it felt too little, too late.
Another good example is clothing….In Kinshasa people were demonstrating in protest of women wearing pants. In Kilwa I often hear men and women, and even children in broken Bemba saying something accompanied with a sneer of distaste about my “pantalons” in reference to the fact that I wear pants, which here is quite scandalous for a woman, even if I am a muzungu. In fact one day a young man started a discussion about this issue with our logistician, in complete and utter disgust at our flagrant disrespect of the cultural norm. But it is not that I have a lack of respect for anyone’s culture, but in all honesty it is ridiculous to me that wearing pants is scandalous, that a simple piece of cloth can put a wall between us, and I also just like wearing pants.
The thing about culture is that I think that there is room for exchange. It helps to close the gaps between us. Culture is one of the most fascinating things about the human animal and it is what separates us from the apes….ok…maybe that along with a little conversation and a few neurons… But in my culture women wear pants. And I am sure, that at the end of the day, I will continue to wear pants, even if it is mildly offensive. Maybe some of the women of Kilwa have wanted to wear pants for a while, and if they see us doing it they might find the courage to put on a pair, one leg at a time. I will however definitely make the effort to leave the sarcasm behind.