by Stanley Granberg
Entering a new culture is a critical stage in missionary life. How well a missionary learns to function and communicate within his target culture will determine the effectiveness of his ministry to those people.
It was September, the middle of the hot, dry season in Kenya. My wife and I were first-term missionaries, in the country just 10 days. But there we were with our two small children and all our belongings stuffed into a tiny Suzuki jeep, heading into the African bush to live with an African family.
Watching rivulets of sweat making muddy tracks down my wife’s dust-covered face, I wondered to myself, "What are we doing? How can we expect to live with a strange family in a strange culture, and learn how to minister to the people of the Meru tribe?"
These were some of my thoughts as we headed into one of the most difficult but rewarding periods of our lives. What were we doing on this dusty African road? We were on our way to bond.
Entering a new culture is a critical stage in missionary life. How well a missionary learns to function and communicate within his target culture will determine the effectiveness of his ministry to those people. A well-planned, successful entry can propel the missionary into his new life and responsibilities with vigor and excitement. On the other hand, a poor entry can become a hurdle that the missionary may never completely overcome. Bonding is an effective, productive way for the missionary to enter his target culture.
Bonding as a field entry procedure was introduced by Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster in their book, Bonding and the Missionary Task. Their presupposition is that when a missionary enters the field he is in a unique state of readiness to learn and understand the lifestyle of the people. By making himself dependent on his adopted people, and by doing things the way they do them, the missionary will "become a belonger," develop an identity with the people, and be accepted as one who understands their feelings, desires, attitudes, concerns and fears. To accomplish this, the new missionary will immerse himself into his new culture by living with a host family.
These two aspects, immersion and dependence, distinguish bonding from the more traditional entry approach. In a traditional entry, the missionary sets up his house and makes himself comfortable in his new environment, doing so along the patterns of his culture. Only when this is accomplished does he attempt to learn the host culture, by making short forays into it, knowing that he will soon return to his way of life. He keeps himself an outsider, isolated in place and manner of life from the people.
With the bonding approach, the missionary delays setting up his home to learn first the cultural patterns of the people. He immediately plunges into their life as a participant, not an observer. He comes to understand their culture intellectually and emotionally, because, for a while at least, he immersed himself in it, dependent on the people. When the missionary finishes bonding, he can choose the lifestyle on which he will build his new life. His speech, his hospitality, his concernsâ€”his whole way of lifeâ€”will reflect that he has known and experienced life from the insider’s point of view.
The bonding experiences of our mission team have convinced us that the concept is a valuable addition to cross-cultural ministry. Immersing oneself in a radically different environment is demanding. But, with a well-defined plan based on knowing what lies ahead, a missionary can bond with the people and emerge with a well-formed sense of belonging that will multiply his effectiveness. The purpose of this article is to provide some guidelines for bonding that will help cross-cultural workers to enter their target culture through a productive, positive bonding experience.
PREPARE YOURSELF TO BOND
Perhaps the most important thing is preparation. Recently, a new family came to work with us. As I listened to what they had done the past year, raising funds, packing, saying good-bye to family, and a thousand other details, I was reminded how much time it takes to leave home. A new missionary can focus so intensely on preparing to leave that when he arrives his first thought may be, "What do I do now?" Good pre-field preparation can help to alleviate feelings of uselessness.
There’s both academic and personal pre-field preparation. Academically, you can gain knowledge and skills that will help you to learn another culture. The reality of how different other people are can hit hard the first time you sit down to a meal of cow intestines, or stumble through the first, halting sentences of a new language. But these jolts can be softened by familiarity with the basic concepts of cultural anthropology and language acquisition skills, like those described in Language Acquisition Made Practical, by Tom and Elizabeth Brewster.
But you also need to prepare yourself by evaluating the benefits bonding will have for your ministry. Be sure that those benefits are valuable to you. Then firmly commit yourself to having a positive bonding experience. With married couples, both people must share that commitment. The rigors of bonding will quickly uncover hidden doubts. A positive frame of mind will carry you through numerous uncomfortable experiences.
SET APPROPRIATE, REALISTIC GOALS
The first time my wife and I bonded in Meru our goal was to learn Kimeru, the language of our target people. All of our preparation and focus was on that one goal. However, we did not know how difficult this was going to be.
My wife spent much of her time peeling our children off her legs as they tried to flee the grasping hands of hundreds of school children seeing white children for the first time. Meanwhile, I was being led by the hand from place to place, meeting people and drinking innumerable glasses of tea. Frustration seized us because we could not immediately reach our goals. We were missing valuable opportunities to learn and adjust to Meru culture because we were so frustrated.
From that we learned better how to adjust our goals to the circumstances. One of the best goals for the first weeks of bonding is to learn to feel comfortable with the people, whether that means "chewing the news" under a tree like a Masai, or drinking sour porridge in a smoky hut like a Meru.
Another valuable goal is to build relationships. Spend lots of time with your host family and others, learning what they do, when and how they interact with one another. Participate with them whenever you can.
Of course, bonding is a time for language learning. But at least for the first few weeks work on only the basics. Learn the local greetings, pronunciation, and some basic survival texts to help you get around. These will introduce you to the community but will still allow you the time you need to absorb and adapt to what’s going on around you. Set appropriate, realistic goals for you and your circumstances.
SELECT YOUR HOST FAMILY WITH CARE
Your host family is one of the most important keys to successful bonding. They will be your introduction to their culture. They will help you to learn what to do and how to do it in culturally acceptable ways. They may also become some of your best friends. Because of their importance, it’s critical that you take care to select a good host family.
To help us, our team has compiled this list of criteria:
1. The family must be typical of that culture. Be aware that often people who live on the margins of their culture are the quickest to respond to a request to be a host family. Learn what a mainstream family is like and look for those kind of people.
2. The family must have at least one person who can speak English. We had our best bonding experience when there was good communication. When possible we use families in which both the man and the woman speak some English, so the missionary couple can build relationships. This limits host family possibilities, but it pays dividends with better bonding.
3. The family should live in an area with many communication possibilities. The first time we bonded in a remote area. We thought this would be good, but instead the small number of people with whom we could interact and use our limited language hindered our learning. Places near community gathering points, such as markets, are good.
4. If possible, select a family that lives in a comfortable climate. Our work area has both highlands where the nights are cold and lowlands where the days are very hot. We find that avoiding extremes frees energy that can be used in the adaptation process.
CONSIDER YOUR NEEDS
A few people seem to be gifted by God to enter a new culture and live there with a minimum of stress and discomfort. But for the rest of us, our physical and emotional needs require us to use some supports that will buoy us up until we feel comfortable.
Therefore, consider your housing carefully. What kind of housing will be best for you and for your host family? In Meru, most people have three houses: one small hut for cooking, another for the man, and the largest for the mother and the uncircumcised children. Thus, for most Meru people, providing living space for a second family is difficult, if not impossible.
When we bonded we wanted to live in a Meru house. After some time, we finally found a family with other girls who were willing to vacate their hut for us. But, after our first week, we found we couldn’t stay in it. Our children were young and they would not sleep at night without some kind of light. Two or three times a night they awakened in a pitch-dark hut and screamed.
Next we moved into a tent. This was better for us and for our host family. We had wanted to live in Meru housing – ”we planned on it” – but our family needs prevented it. So we made some changes and continued our bonding.
You may have to make some other allowances for physical supports. Will you be able to live with the eating and sanitary conditions of your host family? You may have to bring pure water or food for your children. Do not neglect your physical needs. You cannot be an effective learner if you are down with dysentery.
Think about your medical needs. Where is the nearest doctor or hospital? What illnesses and emergencies can they treat? What kind of transportation and communication systems are available? In our situation, we had to keep our vehicles, although we tried to use them sparingly.
Emotional supports are also important. You will have to learn to cope with many psychological and physical differences. These will cause stress and frustration. If you can plan ways to alleviate these, you will have a better bonding experience.
One way to cope with the emotional stress of bonding is to plan time off. Leave your bonding periodically and go somewhere more comfortable. The anticipation of a hot bath or normal meal can keep you going even when you feel like you have reached your limit.
Another coping strategy is to share your problems with understanding co-workers. When you pool your experiences with theirs you may discover solutions to problems and insights into the culture and language that will ease your frustrations and multiply your learning. When they visit you, they can bring your mail, replenish your supplies, and bring spirit lifters like soda pop or homemade cookies.
Don’t be afraid to plan physical and emotional supports. If there is something you can bring or do, within reason, that will help you to stay longer and adjust easier, do it. The purpose of bonding is not to suffer, but to learn how to feel comfortable in your new environment.
BONDING WITH CHILDREN
Bonding is a challenging undertaking, but even more so when you have children. To prepare for this article, I interviewed a number of families and couples who have bonded in difficult physical conditions in East Africa. Without exception, everyone said that it was more difficult to bond with children than without.
This does not mean that a family with children cannot bond. But it does mean that parents must pay extra attention to their children and make adjustments accordingly. At the same time, parents can be encouraged that their children can provide openings into the life of people that would not be available otherwise, especially in cultures where men and women are not considered adults until they have children.
Generally, younger children do not have many difficulties bonding. A one- or two-year-old will hardly give a second thought to strange conditions. His mother may gasp to see him playing in a freshly minted cow pie, but to him it’s just another fascinating experience.
The most difficult years for children seem to be between three and five. At this age the child does not fully understand what’s happening, but he knows his world has changed drastically. With children over five, parents can discuss the bonding with them, to help them understand and adapt to their new environment.
Parents must recognize that when they bond, their children bond too. They are adjusting like their parents. One of our last days to bond, our three and a half-year-old came dancing up to me while I was working with my language helper. He said he had to go to the bathroom. I was trying to squeeze in my last minute of language study, so I told him he knew how to use the outhouse and he could go by himself.
However, he was having his first bout of diarrhea. He lit off across the compound, but it was too late. I was cross at his untimely interruption, so as we walked the rest of the way I told him it made me mad that he did not tell me about his problem earlier. He looked up at me with a most pitiful, pained expression and said, "Daddy, it makes me mad too."
Parents should try to make things as comfortable as possible for their children. You will need more frequent periods away from bonding, or more physical supports (diapers, food for the children, boiled water, etc.) than you would otherwise.
It helps to keep some regular family routines going. If you read to your children before they go to bed, keep doing that. Plan time that will be their time, to reassure them that you can still take care of their needs. Introduce them gradually to new activities. They need time to become accustomed to the new life.
Pay special attention to discipline. Before we bonded we had established discipline. Our children knew what they could and could not do, and they knew how they would be disciplined if they strayed outside the limits. But in Meru culture small children are not disciplined. They are not expected to follow any rules.
It was hard for us to ignore the disapproving scowls of our hosts as we enforced our family rules, so we quit. Before long, however, we had to go back to our rules for the sake of our children, even though it did not fit Meru culture. Our children needed the security of knowing that some things remained the same. Parents must be sensitive to the way children are disciplined in their host culture, but they must also be sensitive to their children’s needs and expectations.
Bonding is an effective way to enter a new culture. The rewards it offers in personal relationships and feeling comfortable with people are invaluable. Bonding provides opportunities for culture and language learning that are seldom available in other ways.
When you bond, approach your task with a serious, common sense attitude. Make informed preparations, set appropriate, realistic goals, select a host family with care, and consider your needs and those of your family.
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