As I prepared to hit send on another text message to my friends back home about some seemingly ridiculous “only in Africa” type thing that had happened to me that day, I stopped and thought a moment about what I had read earlier that day.
“Many people think of [Africa] as another world, a place barely connected to the societies and cultures they consider more advanced. Certainly differences between Africa and other parts of the world abound. But we all have so much more in common than we have distinctions. Some much more that binds us together than keeps us apart” (from the book”Kisses from Katie” by Katie Davis, pg 94).
Why was I so focused on sharing only the stories about the differences between the U.S. and Liberia? On the differences between their society and my society? On the differences between us and them? Why was I only sharing with my friends the things I found slightly bizarre rather than the things I found simply beautiful and touching? Why did I feel the need to text them about stupid things like the oversized jar of mayonnaise I found in the grocery store rather than the kind man who helped us hail a taxi in the rain, the man who is so passionate about the 4-H program that he works every day without a salary just because he believes in the power of the youth in his country, the Methodist pastor whose smile and words reminds me so much of pastors I’ve had back home, the amazing welcome that we received at church in which everyone sang for us and came up to shake our hands during the service, or the sweet lady in the village who gifted me with cookies just because we shared the same (beautiful) name, “Anna”? Why don’t I tell them about these stories?
Maybe it’s because it is still my first few weeks in this country and it is only natural to be overwhelmed by all the differences surrounding me. Maybe it’s because I’m a jokester when I’m with my friends and it’s easier for me to share funny stories rather than it is to open up and share real stories about what’s going on in my life, what I’m feeling, what I’m seeing, and what I’m experiencing in this country so far far away from home. Maybe its’s because I’m trying to make a conscious effort to laugh about all the little random difficult situations that are bound to happen when living in a developing country because I know from experience that if I don’t I may unintentionally and wrongfully allow the feelings of homesickness to morph into an attitude of bitterness and arrogance against this country and its culture. Maybe it’s because it’s easier for my mind to focus on surface level things like differences in how we look, dress, talk, cook, eat, smell, or sound because they are easy to quantify, qualify, and categorize and for a Type A person like myself, I value organization and things that fit neatly into categories. Maybe it’s because it’s easier for me to make assumptions about people and things based on first impressions than it is for me to be intentional about fighting those initial thoughts, dig deeper, and open my eyes, mind, and heart wider to search for those things that binds us together rather than divides us.
Differences are easy to see within seconds and like Katie Davis said in her book they abound here in Liberia, but the truth is so do similarities, even more so than the differences. But the similarities between cultures are not always as obvious or easy to see right when you get off the plane and so it is easy to trick ourselves into a mindset in which all we see are the differences. Similarities in cultures though tend to emerge over time as we get to know people, build relationships, and are intentional about seeking out deeper connections. In the end, we are all human, created by the same God with the same basic desire to know and to be known by those around us.
It is my hope that over this next year in Liberia I will maintain a mindset in which I am actively seeking out similarities and simple joys rather than dwelling on the differences and the difficulties. I don’t want to leave this country with just a long list of how I am different from those around me and I certainly don’t want my friends and family back home to only know the differences between the U.S. and Liberia. What a waste of a year and a travesty that would be… to come all the way over here and fail to tell the true story of Liberia to my friends and family back home.
I want to be able to see and appreciate the real Liberia and I want to be able to share this portrait with everyone back home. So far, I’ve only seen what I know are just glimpses of how amazing this country and its people are as I wander the capital city feeling like a small fish in a big ocean. But I am sooooo excited to move to my much smaller town (albeit 2 weeks past schedule.) and begin developing relationships with my neighbors, with my fellow teachers, with my students, with market vendors, and with everyone else around me as I begin to make this country my home for the next year.
I will probably still text my friends about funny things that happen each day because let’s face it a jar of mayonnaise the size of my torso is hilarious and I love to make people laugh, but I am also going to actively try and tell stories that help my friends and family back home see the beauty and strength, the resilience and hope, and the compassion and joy that is this country and its people.