As we are approaching 2 ½ months of living here in Togo, I am noticing more and more differences in cultures between what I grew up with in the United States and the culture of the Togolese. I think it is an instinctive response to see differences and conclude that your own culture is the “right” one. I’ve been fighting this urge and trying to put on the lenses of the Togolese to see their ideas, worldviews, and opinions through their eyes. Here is one difference in cultures I think that I as an American can learn from…
Greetings. It is very important in Togolese culture to greet everyone you run into. In the tribal language of Ewe, the predominate language where we live, you must greet people with a back and forth exchange that depends on when you last saw the person. There are different phrases if you last saw the person yesterday, that same day, or many days ago. You must be sure to ask about everyone in the person’s family, their children, husband, etc. If they don’t have a family, then you must ask about something. Maybe their motorcycle or their house. It is rude to not greet them fully and to make sure that all is well in their life.
This cultural necessity struck me as starkly unique. How many times do I see a friend at church or the store, and I flippantly ask “How are you?” and move on? I don’t really expect a response other than, “Good”. Sometimes I’m in rush and don’t have time for more than a “Hey!”. Or even I’ve been guilty of avoiding eye contact so I don’t have to have a long conversation (rude, I know, but I’m sure I’m not the only one). However, how much richer and fuller would my relationships be if I took the time to really ask someone how they are doing? If I made a point to make sure everyone in their family was well, that their job was going well, that they weren’t going through a struggle and I merely gave a weak “hello” before moving on with my busy day.
I’m not saying everyone needs to bare their souls in the middle of the frozen food section. But a little more vulnerability and intentionality would go a long way. I think that’s what Jesus would do running into a friend at the Post Office. I think that’s what He already does for me when I pray to Him. He always takes the time to hear my problems and listen to my cries. We as Christians should be marked by empathy, concern for others, and valuing people more than a timetable. And I know that this isn’t always appropriate in our culture. Timeliness is not as valued in West African culture and being late is mostly acceptable here. Whereas, with our rigidly scheduled lives in the US, tardiness is rude and usually not acceptable. But the difference in this part of the world is that a concern for another’s well-being is more important than a schedule, and I find that difference beautiful. I hope and pray that I can become a woman focused on intentionality and compassion in the relationships God brings into my life.