The continent, countries, and cultures of Africa
We tend to think of Africa as a country and forget it is a continent made up of over 50 countries, each with a variety of cultures and practices. Part of the enjoyment of ministry in Africa is learning about other cultures and practices within a country. If you travel to Liberia, you need to learn the Liberian snap-handshake, which is still beyond my current coordination and dexterity level! In the Democratic Republic of the Congo there is a special greeting among believers that involves an embrace accompanied by touching forehead to forehead . . . gently!
When a smile is more than just a smile
Some things that we practice in the United States can be off-putting in a country in Africa and actually limit initial openness to you as an individual and raise questions about your motives and intentions as a visitor. I experienced this a few months back when I smiled . . . yes a smile.
I haven’t confirmed this as a fact but I think I am correct in saying that every culture practices smiling. In countries I have been to in Africa one of the great pleasures I receive is the joy of a smile on the face of people I meet and teach. Being a generally friendly person myself (I think) I tend to smile at people when I meet them in Africa and usually receive some kind of smile in return. This year, in a country I was in, I noticed a distinct difference from my previous experience. When I smiled, people at best didn’t smile and at worst frowned! When I asked Sem Beasnael who was traveling with me what was going on he informed me that in this country if you smile too quickly it is interpreted that you might be dishonest and seeking a way to take advantage of the one you have smiled at . . . in other words, that you are untrustworthy.
A learn-as-you-go blessing
All of this is to say that when you begin a ministry in a country you may never know what kind of cultural barriers might limit you. It is definitely a learn-as-you-go experience but one that continues to be a blessing as we seek to have an ever-increasing impact for God’s glory in the Church in Africa, smiles and all!