Friday, September 2, 2011

Cultural clashes: a reflection on my Congo experience.

I originally composed this in reply to Muisi-kongo, my Congolese dance instructor, asking of my experiences in the Congo and the people I worked with. My response took on a greater seriousness than she probably expected, mostly because all of these thoughts had been bouncing around in my head for many days. I thought it appropriate to reproduce it for the blog, with some edits.


Overall, my experience was fantastic. I would not trade it for anything. It felt like a pilgrimage to study the traditional movements and rhythms from local artists.

There were some interesting cultural clashes that cropped up during my stay.

Being hosted by people of a lower economic class than yourself can create unexpected challenges. I became keenly aware of the fact that I do have money (even if it’s not much by American standards). They try very hard to make you comfortable, yet there are some things that cannot be accommodated easily, e.g. having a hole in the ground for a toilet. But in an effort to be graceful and humble, you mask your thoughts and reactions and try to be grateful that there’s even metal sheeting to offer some semblance of privacy.

It was startling to be waited on so attentively by my hosts. The most stark example was when I had just taken an outdoor bath and was lounging around outside. I neglected to wash my sandals, however, so parts of my freshly cleaned feet were smudged with dirt. One of the women noticed and sprang into action. “This won’t do,” I assume she said in Lari (the local language). She grabbed a bucket and a rag (which was really just a scrap of a rice sack) and proceeded to wash my feet. And then wash my sandals. I didn’t know how to respond, caught as I was between emotions of surprise, embarrassment, gratitude, and shame at having some old woman wash my feet when I could so easily do it myself.

“Hosting” is a much more serious commitment in Congo than in the U.S. They feel shame if they do not provide everything for their guest, or find that their guest is uncomfortable. One time while sitting outside under a tree, enjoying a relaxing afternoon of reading and munching on a loaf of bread, I was presented with a plate of oranges. I accepted them gratefully. Later on, I found out the impetus for the gift: the mother was shocked to see me just eating bread for lunch. (This was early on in my stay, when I was still so enamored with the taste of real bread.) Feeling ashamed that her guest was not receiving adequate provisions, she had one of her children go buy a couple oranges for me.

I am a person that does not like to create demands. I am grateful they even provided a roof over my head; the last thing I wanted to do was make them wait on me. And thus an unintended dynamic was created, where I was made uncomfortable by their relentless efforts to make me comfortable. Suddenly I had to be always conscious of how my actions were perceived, to not show any signs of disappointment or need. As a person that does like to have my alone time, this pressure began to wear me down quickly.

Another big challenge was money. I needed to adjust to the Congolese notion of giving and hospitality. Pretty much everything is shared in Congo. Whenever a person has something, e.g. a piece of bread, and you happen to be standing there and looking at them, e.g. conversing with them, they will offer you a piece. This happens all the time without fail.

It also extends to random, unsolicited gifts. This sometimes made me uncomfortable, receiving food gifts (e.g. some oranges, a loaf of bread, avocado, etc.) when I can far more easily afford it myself, but accepted them with sincere gratitude.

I struggled with this principle on various levels. It took me a while to adjust, but I made a definite effort; by the time I left, I developed the habit of buying extra of whatever I was purchasing (bananas, crackers, etc.) for sharing. While they were all considerate about not pressuring me, I could tell that do to otherwise would be considered selfish.

It was an easy adjustment for inexpensive items like bananas – what’s another $1 spent on my friends? Treating myself to something nice, be it cheese or a dinner in the city, however, became an increasingly expensive endeavor.

A culture of giving is quickly complicated by a disparity in economic strata. I try to keep a relative perspective about gifts: a gift worth $5 from a poor individual signifies more than the same gift from a millionaire. However, I still struggled with pangs of frustration when every dinner out automatically doubled or tripled in price because there were others in my company. I could afford it, but I am a student and it’s not exactly like I have money to throw around. Sometimes the culture of extreme giving had a reverse impact on me, driving me to seek isolation so I could just pay for myself and not worry about others.

When a $10 dinner at the snack bar becomes a $30-40 event because there are people with me, it’s hard to justify spending money on nice things. It made me feel like I had less control over my own diet, because street vendors were suddenly the only affordable option. Perhaps it’s just that I’m not used to being financially responsible for someone else, and that made me feel burdened, uncomfortable, tethered – essentially everything opposite of the feelings created by traveling – and that is why they were so unwelcome. It was also frustrating because I had just emerged from rural Nigeria. There were the wonders of a city dangling before me – restaurant food, dairy, meats, ice cream – and I effectively could not enjoy them because I was so self-conscious about the fact that the people in my company could not afford them; while if I bought enough to share equally, I was paying 3-4x as much and could hardly justify the expense. Either way, the pleasure was largely subverted by the cultural complications.

I do believe that the universe has a way to give back to those that give. Even so, there were times I felt like people viewed me as a rich white guy that could be squeezed for gifts and food. That’s frustrating, because I’m not rich; I must carefully conserve money just the way they do – I just do so at a different economic level. The fact that I do have money and I could theoretically give and give to them, however, made me realize that I wasn’t truly sharing what I have, and that made me feel selfish: because I was protecting my status quo. Every day, I was faced with this quandary in some degree: just how much am I willing to give? It’s easy to ignore the common street mendicant, much harder for your new friends that you see every day and care for.

Africans appear fundamentally different than Westerners in this regard; any person with money automatically (and willing) bears the responsibility of financially supporting his extended family and even friends. I wonder if that’s part of the reason capitalism has not particularly succeeded in Africa. The moment a person catches a break with a good job or opportunity, the windfall of fortune is instantly diluted, which reduces the likelihood of reinvestment to climb the economic ladder. It paints a more nuanced picture of the challenges to emerging from poverty; a single person cannot escape because they must try to bring along everyone else.

The extreme socialism – for lack of a better word – made me realize my ingrained capitalist principles (e.g. what’s mine is mine because I bought it with my money and my status is mine to protect because I got myself to this point through hard work), even when I fancy myself a giving individual. This was not exactly a comfortable realization, but hey – that’s what crosspollination of cultures is for, right?

I also did not realize that when someone asks if they may join for dinner, it means you’re paying for them. On several occasions, I was asked by Manasset if so-and-so could join, and I’d say of course, thinking their company would be welcome; little did I know that I just increased the multiplier on my bill. This is one of those other unusual circumstances where the culture engendered feelings of isolation; I had to be willing to cover the expenses of others unless I wanted to be by myself.

On to the people…

Goga is a superb dancer. When he shows a movement, he does it with full energy. I appreciated this, because it gave me more visual information to learn. He was also fairly expensive; he asked for $40/day (usually about 2 hrs of work). At one point, he expressed to me how he struggles to make enough money to pay for his mom’s hospital bills and eventually got around to asking if I would buy him a cell phone. This made me extremely uncomfortable; I like the guy, but I felt like that crossed a line. Again, it presented me with that undesirable conflict: just how much am I willing to give? Technically I could afford to buy him a cell phone, but…

Clavert, the drummer, is great. Good teacher, speaks English reasonably well, and is just fantastically laid back. I liked that aspect of him most: no drama, just friendly and happy to teach. His pay amounted to about $20/hr.

The other drummer, whose name I can’t remember (he was the other guy Pierrick tried to set me up with, he wears dreds and gets around on a mountain bike), was less pleasant to deal with. The one time we had a lesson, he showed up 30 minutes late and proceeded to not work with me because he was busy drumming for the dancers at the dance company. (In essence, he was trying to work two jobs at once.) He also complained about wanting pay for my dance “performance.” Manasset conveyed the story to me: Manasset spoke on my behalf, saying he’s a friend and this isn’t a performance, that he would do the same for Manasset if asked. The drummer replied yes, but this is different because he’s (I am) a white guy and has money, so he wants to be paid. So yeah, he’s not on my good list.

Manasset is a great tour guide. His English is approaching fluency. He is gregarious and energetic. He is trustworthy. He sincerely wants to make everyone happy and create harmony. He is also tremendously forgetful, has an abysmal sense of time, and has yet to be able to prep guests for culture shocks (read: the money/giving issue). All that said, I like Manasset a lot and consider him a good friend.

I did my best to cover all his expenses while he was with me. For that reason and that fact that we were friends, I did not pay him. Again, I struggled with this decision. In the CouchSurfing community, you find people who are tremendously giving and would never accept monetary compensation. In the Congo, it’s clear that a person won’t directly ask for compensation but perhaps wants/expects it. As a student, this created a dilemma between saving money and expressing to him my gratitude. I think it would have helped if my relationship to him was more clearly defined at the beginning. As he was thrust upon me, I didn’t feel like I was hiring a guide; rather, I was making a friend. If he saw himself as a guide, though, I think defining up front that he expects to be paid would allow me to decide whether to contract his services and, if so, for how long. While my French is nonexistent, I do know how to get by and may have opted out to save money.

As a translator, he was generally helpful for coordinating lessons, handling logistics, etc. In social situations, however, he became mostly useless. He needed constant prompting to translate either direction. He has not yet developed the habit of passing ideas back and forth between two languages, and I sympathize with this fact; speaking two languages is only part of the skillset required to be a translator. He is still learning and I tried to offer him constructive feedback and reminders.

Manasset is still learning about the differences between Congolese and Western cultures. He took for granted, for example, that I understood the implications of saying that someone else could join us for dinner. He is learning and this will probably improve with time, so that he can better prep future foreigners. He was good about helping me haggle to get local prices, but did not inform me that haggling also applies to friends, i.e. the teachers. This created some drama, as I would present a wad of money that I was under the impression would be fair, and the teacher would get upset at the discounted rate.

Manasset, for all his energy and playing at being a professional tour guide, is still a young adult of 19 years old. This means he hasn’t developed a solid time management strategy or a system for tracking engagements. I often had to advocate for myself, which was a bit challenging when Manasset was unclear with what social events were happening or when people were expecting me to show up or how long it would take to accomplish a certain goal.

Waiting until the end to discuss money was a source of endless frustration for me. Perhaps it’s the capitalist in me, but it seems silly to render services and then talk about money without so much as an estimate beforehand. It creates an unpleasant power/bartering dynamic, where you owe him something, but he’s somewhat at your mercy to take what you give. It can leave a person feeling cheated, disrespected, etc. I don’t like that. It also doesn’t allow me to weigh the decision to actually partake of their services; as a person that constantly runs cost/benefit analyses in my head (I’m an engineer, what can I say?), this lack of upfront information was endlessly vexing.

All of this said, I realize that it’s how Africa works and there’s little that can be done about it: part of the cultural experience.

Despite the inordinate thought that I’ve given to these cultural differences, I am profoundly grateful for my experience and would not trade it for anything. The challenges taught me much about cultures and myself. I am so awed by the generosity of the Congolese and how Manasset’s impoverished family treated me like royalty. I was humbled by the experience and the opportunity to learn the culture and the dance in such an authentic way.


Lindsay said...

This was a really cool post: the super articulate descriptions of your experiences with your tour guide and other companions made for fascinating reading, and illustrated these cultural differences so clearly and thoughtfully. I think I would have had such similar reactions to these situations and I empathized strongly with your frustration. You also sound so gracious and grateful to be there. And so self-aware. Thanks for posting, Andrew. :)

eric said...

Awesome post Andrew! This story resonates with me on so many levels...putting into words very similar thoughts, feelings and frustrations I had during my African travels (particularly in Mali) but have been unable to even two years later. Although I knew or saw what was happening from the moment I arrived, I fought it daily and it wore me down. Perhaps even affecting my overall experience slightly. It was a huge struggle for me internally because I did not have the means to help everyone. As soon as you start, where do you stop when a line starts to form? I'm sure it's something they didn't understand, nor did I, when on occasion I would become outwardly hostile towards them. Still, it was a wonderful experience and likewise, I would not trade it for anything. Thank you.