There is a memory from my mission internship in Togo way back in 2001 that has stuck with me. It had been raining and we stopped to visit with people in a small village. I can clearly picture Frank Bunner squating down, talking to an old West African woman and her family. What stood out to me that day, though, was the way that his posture mimicked the people around him. It hit me that Frank’s mission team had not only learned French and Evé in order to communicate the gospel but that they were also using a different body language to connect as well.
That snapshot of Frank crouching has stayed with me and served as a reminder that ministering cross-culturally necessitates learning languages both spoken and unspoken.
The Makua-Metto people have some interesting behavioral habits. They'll raise their eyebrows or raise their chin in order to answer ‘yes’. They will take in a short breath in order to encourage the other person to keep speaking. And they will softly clap their hands to show respect. But the part of their body language that was the most confusing for me to understand was...
At the beginning of learning the Makua-Metto language, we practiced short simple conversations with many, many people. I remember often asking: “How many children do you have?” Every once in a while, though, a woman would respond by shrugging her shoulders. Now, from my American body language, shrugging one’s shoulders like that means: “I don’t know.” Confused, I thought to myself, “How could she not know how many children she has?” Later, though, we learned that shrugging one’s shoulders in this culture is the way to say “No.” She was telling me that she didn’t have any children.
Body language is one of the hardest things to put into practice. I can raise my eyebrows to answer yes. I take a short breath to encourage a friend to keep speaking. I’ll clap my hands softly to communicate respect. But, I still don’t shrug my shoulders to say “no” – it doesn’t feel natural, even now.
But, Rachel and I have noticed something different in our children. Sometimes our three year-old Katie will shrug to say “no” and other times she’ll shrug to say “I don’t know.”
Most days our girls spend the afternoon playing with the Mozambican kids who live nearby. It's been fun to see what words they pick up or ask us about. Even though her Makua-Metto is very, very limited, it seems that Katie has picked up some of the body language. Or... at the very least she has become a bilingual shrugger!
Grace and Peace,