Congolese are Like Onions: They Have Layers

4/19/2014 02:23:00 PM sendtheroths 0 Comments

Meeting with the North Kivu Director of the Province.
Congo is a Francophone country, which means that French is the primary means of professional communication here. Swahili, Lingala, Kikongo and Tshiluba are also considered official languages. However, when stepping into a government office, we are expected to know French.

Congo also uses the French legal system, which we know as Civil Law. Anglophone (English speaking) countries like the United States do not operate on Civil Law; instead we operate on Common Law.

The Francophone influence in Congo presents a host of challenges for us, primarily because we face layers of cultural differences.

The Bantu Layer
The first and most obvious layer is that Congolese are Bantu people, which means they are indigenous to Africa. Here are some Bantu ideologies that we can find throughout all of Africa. There are of course, some exceptions to this, I’m not an anthropologist, but here’s a general idea:

1.) LIFE – The most valuable thing in the Bantu culture is the human life and fertility. The idea of abortion or suicide is completely foreign to this culture. It’s really tough for them to wrap their minds around why anyone would even think of either of these things.

2.) Fate – Typically, Bantus see fate as predetermined and don’t believe that they could influence it on their own accounts. As a result, they except death without as many questions that a typical foreigner would have. They also see circumstances in life to be a reflection of blessing or punishment from some higher power. As a result, if a person is going through hard times, the community can infer that this person did something to deserve those hard times.

Specific to only North Kivu, Congo (DRC) the chukudu
can carry an immense amount of weight (over 500lbs).
This is a statue of a chukudu where symbolically this
"third-world" tool is actually carrying the whole world.
3.) Solidarity – Success is not considered success until it benefits the whole group, clan or village. One person being an achiever is not appreciated unless that person is doing something for the group to achieve. A man or a woman’s worth is determined by the amount of people who are with him through good times and bad times.

The Francophone Layer
This is a layer that I’m truly still really confused about. The French culture is incredibly different from culture in the U.S. and I can understand why Francophones and Anglophones typically don’t associate with one another. Here are some cultural layers that we’ve had to navigate through.

1.) Position and Title – Position and title are held at a higher esteem than US culture. Title and position separate you from others and it’s culturally accepted and esteemed to keep a gap between the titleholder and others. For instance, it is not legally possible to hold a director position, without having a certain salary to reflect that position.

2.) Justice system (Civil Law) – Civil Law determines the source of law through academic scholars, theorists and university professors. Conclusions are drawn in court by considering the point in abstract theory. The theory and the practice never really mesh and they are not meant to. Common Law, which is what we use in the United States, finds its source determined by the judges and practitioners. Common Law uses facts to draw the conclusion.

3.) Rational thought vs. religion: in contrary to Bantu culture, the Francophone culture believes that the individual primarily determines the future—people are either good or evil. Good vs. evil can be easily hand-in-hand with rational thought vs. religion. Good, being rational thought and bad being religion.

This may sound like intellectual gibberish, but it’s not. The Gospel is simple, but people are not. This creates a really big barrier in teaching concepts that defy rational thought such as: dying to self or taking your thoughts captive and even the French Bible fails to translate these thoughts properly. 

Francophone Africa (such as Congo, Burundi and much of West Africa) has a history uniquely different from Anglophone (Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Sudan, Tanzania and much of East and Southern Africa). The way colonization and independence occurred were particularly different. The effects are increasingly apparent today.
Not only do we deal with Francophone and Bantu cultures,
we often have meetings and interaction with those
a part of the United Nations. Contingents come from all
over the world including India, Pakistan, Uruguay,
 South Africa, and other nations.

Navigating through a hybrid culture of Bantu and Francophone language and culture requires a thorough analysis of the texts that we teach and how we teach them. It requires knowing the law or having a trustworthy person frequently on hand who can navigate through legal documents and protect us from lawsuits. It requires not just knowing the grammatical mechanics of the language but to know HOW TO use the language as a means to draw LIFE out of every individual that we speak with.

This is something that people who speak only one language and have never left their home country still struggle with.

Explaining the Bantu-Francophone layers only scratch the surface of  numerous other cultural barriers determined by socio-economic class as well as 400 different tribal groups each with their own customs. Moreover, we work in many sectors of the society: religious, economic, education, arts, culture and law-- each having it's own sub-culture to it, so-to-speak.

God calls us to embrace the differences and find His heart in the midst of every culture. I can certainly understand why wars happen and why people don't trust each other in our world. I'm still trying to figure out how to sit with French colleagues (because there are many of them working here) and make it through a conversation without insulting or feeling insulted. But I'm convinced that this is the beauty of the Kingdom.

God didn't create cultures so radically different from our own so that we could nitpick at them. He created them to remove the plank out of our eyes. He created them so that we could see better.