Jenny and I have been reading a book called When Helping Hurts by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. We highly recommend it for anyone interested in missions work in any capacity; for full-time missionaries, short-term missions teams, or even those who support missionaries financially.
The book has challenged our thinking and has caused us to re-evaluate a lot of our missions philosophy. It’s easy to read a book and agree with it from a theoretical standpoint. But when you have to read a book and apply it, it can be quite frustrating.
One of the points in this book talks about how westerners are very focused on the task at hand and focus on producing a quality product or doing a good job. Africans on the other hand are more focused on relationships and the job being done is secondary. Sounds good in theory, but in practice it can be very frustrating.
We’ve been building a house for Mama Agnes, a lady in the community who feeds roughly 80-100 kids everyday from her mother’s porch. With the help of a visiting team in May, we began construction on the house. Sounds easy enough for someone like myself who has worked in the construction industry in the U.S. for 13 years. The problem is that in the U.S. there is one objective: build a quality product on time and under cost. Africans don’t share that same single-minded focus. To Africans, the primary focus is on the relationships that are built and sustained within the community, the construction project is secondary. In the U.S. relationships are a tool for the job, in Africa the job is a tool for the relationships. In Africa I could build a quality house on time and under cost, but if I do it without fostering and developing the relationships in the community, then the project is a failure.
I’ve realized that my focus on quality and cost has been in the way of relationships. Mama Agnes told me that some of the men in the neighborhood were telling her that I’ve prepared the ground for the floor the wrong way. (These men want to be hired to do the work the "right" way.) I know without a doubt that I’ve done it right and the way that they want to do it will cost a lot of extra money and time. (Things that westerners value more than Africans.) But I realized that trying to convince Agnes of this was futile. After I consented to do it their way and told her that in the future I’ll be sure to consult the neighborhood “experts” before building, her whole demeanor changed. What started out as frustration over my “mistakes” turned into a conversation about how we can all cooperate and find the best way to get the job done. Her posture changed, her tone of voice changed and her attitude changed, not because I recognized that her way was right, but because I recognized and acknowledged her.
Is the job going to get done with quality, on time, and under budget? No. But I realized that’s ok, because that’s not the point.
I didn’t come to Africa to impress them with my building skills. I came to Africa to change lives. And that can’t be done outside of relationship.
Evan as I write this, it’s painful for me to shift my focus. It almost literally hurts for me to accept doing a job that takes more time and costs more money for lower quality. In the U.S. I’d be fired for doing that. It goes against everything I’ve been taught my whole life and career.
But I have to remember why I’m here, and stay focused on letting myself be guided by Biblical principles, not American or African work ethics.