Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Art of Ambiguity - African Friends and Money Matters

If I had to recommend just one book to someone interested in working in this part of the world, it would have to be African Friends and Money Matters by David Maranz.  The book is extremely useful in helping Westerners understand the significant cultural differences.  Maranz makes ninety insightful observations about African perspectives on finance and relationships.

Here are just a few:

"25. A network of friends is a network of resources."

"31.  Compliments are frequently given indirectly in the form of requests for gifts or loans and are often formulated as questions."

"32. If a Westerner has a misunderstanding about finances with an African friend, it is virtually impossible to straighten it out directly with the offended individual."

"58. Old debts are forgotten and are not expected to be repaid, neither by the debtor nor by the lender."

"60. There is some sense in which people want to be without money so that they can more easily refuse a request for a loan."


Rereading this book recently I was reminded again how terrific a resource this is.  Each observation easily connected with our own personal experiences.  And these cultural differences really do shape everything - from money to relationships to communication.

One quote in particular has captured my attention.  In a section on friendship and etiquette, Maranz references comments by Yale Richmond and Phyllis Gestrin (p. 90-91):

"Ambiguity is an art in Africa, and imprecision is its first cousin.  Africans speak naturally, with eloquence, and without hesitation or stumbling over words, but their language is often imprecise and their numbers inexact.  Every personal interaction becomes a discussion which establishes a basis for the relationship between the two parties.  Westerners should probe gently for specificity and details until they are reasonably satisfied that they understand what is meant even if not stated."  

The longer we live in Mozambique the more I've come to believe that learning the language is the key for putting someone in the position to make a lasting difference.  Now, I used to think that once I had my Makua-Metto vocabulary down that would be enough and I would be able to communicate well.  But the truth is that communication involves much more than knowing all the right words, it also means being able to discern how nuance and tone shape meaning - and that takes lots of time and lots of trial and error.

As an American, I value direct communication, but in order to work effectively here I've had to learn to play a different kind of communication game.  Our friends love to use riddles and enjoy finding the most indirect way to say something.  It's like our Mozambican friends see conversation as a fine wine that should be savored - not gulped down quickly.  And pushing for minutiae can put people off because often it goes against the rules.  In this conversational game, clarity is overrated and shows a lack of skill.

While that approach can certainly be annoying, the above quote helps me see my African friends as artists who like to paint in broad strokes to get the picture across.  On my better days here I take the time to pick up their big brush and join them in this game of ambiguity.  It can be fun.  And then there are times when the training that my own culture has given me in using the finer, more detailed brush can help fill out the picture we're painting together.

Ambiguity is an art form that speaks loudly here.  And it's an artistic style that I'm still learning.  But, I'm convinced of its importance because this way of thinking and speaking shapes relationships, finances and more and I believe that Westerners who fail to become conversant in this form of communication do so to their own peril.   

May God help us learn to be conversational artists who communicate in meaningful ways no matter how ambiguous they may be.

Grace and Peace,


1 comment:

  1. blessing alan and prayers for good progress with this skill. God is working with you! it must be hard being versed in the western way of communication. john