This Norwalk couple currently lives in northern Africa. While befriending the people there, they are teaching English and training others to teach English. He also helps the locals drill wells in search of water. We are not naming the two for security reasons. They are partially funded by the Geotrac Foundation. This is the third in a series of articles about their lives in Africa.
I've been mulling over the different ways our culture impacts the way we view life. Suddenly I find myself living among people who see life differently in both big and small ways. Thanks to several cultural anthropology courses, I know that people have reasons underlying their actions. Though it's tempting to look at another's actions and evaluate them according to my own values (which have been developed largely by my cultural background), I will never come to the right conclusion by doing this. Sounds mainly theoretical so far. How does culture impact those around me?
Not much is more important in sustaining physical life than water. How does my culture impact my thoughts regarding water? To be honest, as a relatively affluent American, I'm not so sure I have many thoughts about water. That reality speaks volumes.
What do I know or assume about water? Water flows when I turn on the tap. I don't know where my water comes from, but I believe it's clean, drinkable and abundant. It's not just that water flows when I turn on the tap water flows at whichever temperature I desire. Clean, drinkable, clear, safe, hot, warm or cold water, at my disposal. And I forgot abundant. Enough for a bathtub full, or a warm shower just to relax. Enough to wash my car until it sparkles (not that I do that very often).
So that's my water experience. It doesn't say much about who I am as a person until Africa. Suddenly I'm forced to examine myself through the lens of another culture. So what have I learned about water here?
Just like at home, water is valuable and necessary here. Water comes through the tap usually every other or every third day. I don't turn on the tap to get water I leave my tap open so I can hear when the water comes on. At 1, 2, 3, 4 a.m. whenever it comes I get up and fill my water barrels. When I'm done, I throw a hose out my door for my next-door neighbor to fill up not everyone has a tap inside her house. Water is a community issue, not a personal one. I don't call the water company if I run out; I knock on the door of a neighbor and borrow 20 or 50 liters.
Before I knew any better, I ignored a knock on my door (it was two o'clock in the morning, after all). I filled my own water barrels and went back to bed. And I broke a relationship that had just started. Water is paramount and to deny someone water is a weighty sin.
When traveling in the African heat, I know I can knock on any door and request cold water and it will be given. Lest you think that's because of small village community life, I'll remind you that I live in a major urban center.
What else have I learned about water? If a friend gives me a cup of dirty water, I can just wait a few minutes for the dirt to settle on the bottom of the cup before I drink it. A shower is a bucket of water and a cup every day. Tap water isn't good to use straight away as it often pours out steaming (literally).
Can all these differences really tell me anything about myself or anyone else? I think so. Without pressing it too far, I see my American water world view valuing comfort, ease, abundance, cleanliness, and independence. Water should come on when I need it, it should be the temperate I need, the amount I need and really, I should be able to get and use my own water supply in my own house (do you know anyone without plumbing?). None of these values is inherently bad (at least in moderation).
What about when I see water through my African lenses (which are admittedly foggy, as I'm an outsider here)? Water is a commodity not a given. Survival is a more realistic value than ease. Community life is vital; just looking out for number one isn't an option. Hospitality is often seen in a cup of cold water and it's a privilege to be the giver of hospitality, not the receiver. So in Africa, water speaks to survival, community, hospitality, while in the U.S. it speaks more of comfort, abundance, independence. This hardly touches the surface.
I often wonder why our city can't figure out a water rationing schedule so that we have water the same days and times each week I value order and time. My Muslim neighbors told me today, "If God wills, the water will come on tonight." It's hard to imagine, but my thoughts about water might reflect my thoughts about faith. I believe God is a god of order and a water rationing schedule could relieve people he created and loves of many burdens and much chaos. My neighbors believe that God is ultimately in control of everything (as do I) and might say that a water rationing schedule takes for granted God's kindness in giving us water at all.
It only takes a little imagination to see some of the incredible difficulties I'll run into as an independent, comfort-seeking, abundance-loving American if I try to help my neighbors improve their water situation. I'd probably try to have a tap installed in every house and undermine the community-oriented lifestyle. I might introduce scheduled water rations, and show my neighbors that I try to assume the place of God in controlling daily necessities. Imagine now that I'm trying to start a school, or hospital or government. Imagine that I don't study local language or culture. Imagine that I come up with a solution before asking if there's a problem.
Sometimes the difficulties of cross-cultural communication make me want to throw in the towel and come home. But more often they make me want to work hard to try and understand people and their reasoning, to be a learner, not a teacher, to be of service, not to be in control. If nothing else, I'm reminded that while culture isn't relative, my own world view isn't the standard by which I judge other world views. I hate to stop there, but there hasn't been water for four days and my tap just came on.