We’ve spent over a year now living in a village among the Shangaan (or vaTsonga) people in the former Gazankulu area of South Africa.  Most of what perplexed or surprised us during the first few weeks and months and which sometimes caused considerable amounts of anxiety for us and the Shangaan people we lived closest to has now simply become a comfortably expected routine way of life.

During our first two months of Peace Corps training, we lived with one older Tswana lady in a small mostly Tswana village.  She definitely treated us with deference, but we chalked it up to decades of working as a “domestic servant” (i.e. maid) in a white household in nearby Pretoria.  Especially as she quickly opened up to us in the ensuing weeks and with the broadly warm welcome we immediately received from everyone else in the village.  We soon came to expect the open friendliness of the Tswana people, their love of partying for any occasion, their quickness to strike up a conversation (regardless of the difficulties of communicating past our language barrier), frequent visits to other households, etc.

So, when we arrived in our permanent Shangaan village where we’re now living, we very taken aback by the variety of careful measures widely used to keep us at a “social distance”.  It’s true that the Shangaan people appeared friendly and smiles weren’t uncommon (as long as we displayed a smile first), but we could feel something hanging in the air, affecting their every action and word (or lack thereof) that kept them at a distance from us.  And it wasn’t from lack of effort on our part; we knew this is where we’d be living for the next two years and we believed (and rightly so) that integration into this community would be essential for both our work and our own psychological well-being.

So we tried whatever we could to bridge that gap: we greeted everyone we passed, we attended every funeral and any other public event that we knew of, we invited lots of people to our house, we eagerly hoped for invitations to other people’s houses, we baked things for our neighbors, we spent dinners with our host family, hoping to get to know them better and then somehow extend that into a chain of relationships with the rest of the village.  We put a LOT of thought into how to make this social and cultural integration happen and we were willing to try anything we could think of or anything that came up.  But to our surprise, nothing ever worked to really lower that social distance; our expectations were never satisfied.

That kind of concerted and continuous effort with no apparent results can really take a toll on people and people deal with it in different ways.  I’d been surprised by culture a few times before, so while the new surprise of this exasperating “social distance” continued to annoy me, I was willing to wait it out and see what happened.  Lora, on the other hand, was sure the “problem” originated with her and was almost equally sure that if she just discovered the right solution, it would go away.  Needless to say, our months and months of effort caused her considerable stress and anxiety.

Other Volunteers, with the same or different “problems” that they’re confronting, sometimes just decide to go home, and with the individual emotional turmoil involved, you can’t really blame them.  But the solution is something that kind of just arrives with time, probably inevitable in many ways: our expectations change.  They change to more accurately fit the reality we find ourselves in.

Slowly and gradually we learned, the way any Shangaan child growing up in our village does, that “social distance” is just part of “the way it is”.  As we were able to think less of ourselves and spend more time observing the Shangaan people around us, their interactions with each other, and hear their responses to some fortunately-phrased questions, we learned that keeping people at a certain distance socially was their habit long before we arrived.

Maybe the revelation culminated for us when one of our schools’ principals one day remarked that now he’s “knowing us too well” and “that’s not good.”  We were perplexed at that statement and asked him to explain.  The best answer he gave us was that people say someone “is knowing someone else too well” in a negative sense, because if they know a person too well they may ask for too many favors or try to take advantage of you.

In fact, when most people in our village applied their same standards of “social distance” to us, it was actually a sign of community inclusion rather than exclusion.  They were treating us the way they treated everyone else.  But it took us a LONG time to recognize that.  And contrary to our initial reactions, the few who spoke directly to us and confronted us directly weren’t the few who valued us more, they were the few who valued us less and chose to violate their cultural norms because they saw us as existing entirely outside its boundaries.

So now our expectations are changed.  We know that people don’t look us in the face because they don’t want to disrespect us and they’ll only steal quick glances at our faces when we’re not looking at them.  We know that conversations among most Shangaan people in our village rarely extends beyond the same small talk of formalized greetings and responses.  They mention whether it’s hot or cold and include greetings to any family members not immediately present.  To repeat the exact same greeting or response several times in the same short conversation is normal and not a sign of awkwardness.

We know that any question is usually answered with the vaguest and least-detailed possible response with more details only slowly becoming available as the same question is repeated multiple times.  Close friends or family members more often sit for long times in silence than in conversation.

We know that almost no one will ever visit our house as a result of an invitation by us, at least not at the time for which the invitation was intended.  And when unexpected visits happen, they often won’t last more than a few minutes because anything longer would be imposing.

A boy in front of his grandmother's hutIt’s good for us to know because we’re expected to visit others occasionally, without invitation or announcement, but we shouldn’t stay for more than a few minutes.  And when we arrive, we can expect to be quickly seated at a distance of fifteen feet or more (depending on how large the yard is) from the ones we’ve come to visit, as their way of showing us maximum respect.  We’ll be offered something to drink or eat and if accepted, we’ll have to eat and drink mostly in isolation.  We then need to leave rather quickly, without any reason being given except a simple announcement that we’re leaving.

In the time we’ve been here, we’ve come to expect these and even more subtle details and we’ve grown comfortable with it.  It’s definitely different from the Tswana people of our training village, and it’s different from some Zulus we’ve encountered and it’s different from stories we’ve heard from other Volunteers working with different people groups.  But for the Shangaan people of our area, this is the way it is, and now that we know and expect it, we’re comfortable with it and the large portion of anxiety it originally caused for us is now gone.

Though it would be a huge exaggeration at this point to say that we completely understand the Shangaan people in our village and their culture, I think we can safely say that we have successfully adapted to most of the broad aspects of our local Shangaan culture and we generally know what to expect in everyday situations.  So, when we left a bit over a week ago to spend a relaxing vacation in nearby Mozambique among a significantly larger group of Shangaan people, we didn’t expect that there’d be many surprises in store for us.  Especially because a large portion of our own village’s inhabitants immigrated to our village from Mozambique in the 80s.  But another surprise was in store.  In Mozambique, many of the Shangaan people are different in different ways.

For example, in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, many people we passed looked directly into my face, and even if I looked back at them, they didn’t divert their gaze quickly to the ground as I’ve grown accustomed to.  I haven’t passed nearly so many people outside of Maputo, but it seems to be similarly true further north and towards the coast: there’s no taboo towards looking a person in the face, even if they’re looking at you.  For myself, I was simply no longer accustomed to looking people in the eye and having them return their gaze.  So it surprised me.

But the biggest surprise for us has been the varying reactions of us speaking Shangaan (xiTsonga) with them.  In Maputo and several small towns we stopped in on our way to the beaches, people aren’t at all shy to speak Shangaan with us, as we’re used to.  They’re excited and surprised to find that we speak Shangaan, but they soon start speaking it back to us just like a normal conversation.  Unfortunately, in Maputo, it’s nearly unintelligible for us because it seems to be primarily Portuguese with a decent bit of Shangaan thrown in just for good measure.  Outside of Maputo it’s much more like the Shangaan we’re used to, so the conversations work out pretty well and move along mostly just like we’re used to in our village.

A fish market in Mozambique

A fish market in Mozambique

The big surprise is the way our Shangaan has been received in the beach towns/villages.  People can clearly understand us, and we can hear them speaking to each other in the Shangaan that we’re used to, but they almost never replied directly to us in Shangaan.  They invariably began speaking to us in Portuguese, but even after that failed, they seemed intent to speak to us in broken English (or continued Portuguese) rather than in the Shangaan which we’d already demonstrated to them that we were able to speak and understand.

At first, it was just frustrating because it made communication more difficult than usual, but it was definitely something we noticed with the majority of people we tried to speak to in the beach towns.  And the funny thing was that their Shangaan, as we heard them speaking to each other, was the most “pure” (not mixed with Portuguese) and thus the easiest for us to understand, if only they’d use it when speaking directly to us.  But unfortunately, most people just wouldn’t.

We didn’t spend enough time in Mozambique to say that we could’ve noticed any other distinct differences in those aspects of “social distance” (or any other cultural aspect) which I’ve just described.  But those two differences: of looking a person in the face, and of people in some areas being shy to respond to us in Shangaan, made me realize just how strongly a thing like colonialism or other types of cultural domination can distinctly affect the culture of a group of people and cause it to develop in different ways.

South Africa was variously colonized by the Dutch, who after time developed their own identity as “Afrikaners”, and then by the British.  Parallel to that, the Zulu people spent a long time subjecting other tribes, including the Shangaans, to their own rule or they simply chased the other tribes out.  Governmental ruling power alternated between the British and the Afrikaaners but it was always a rule of hierarchy, distinguishing different people of varying levels on a social scale, culminating with what’s called “Apartheid” and finally ending in 1994.

It’s easy to see Apartheid’s continued effects in South Africa today, anything like that is definitely slow to change, and we’ve long since realized that it also affects the hierarchies by which the Shangaan people we live among view themselves and by which they structure their own form of “social distance”.

To most Shangaan people in our village, Shangaan people from Mozambique are actually at the bottom of the hierarchy.  People with nicer jobs (like teachers) are a step up, and tribes of significantly larger populations like Zulus are next up the ladder, and the steps continue up the rest of the way mostly the way Apartheid was structured.  I hadn’t realized it before we encountered Shangaan people living in Mozambique, but it may be that this directly identifiable hierarchy is also the cause of increased social distance, such as not being able to look a person in the face.

In Mozambique, though I don’t know its history so well, there was never a directly legislated hierarchy like Apartheid in South Africa and it seems that the Portuguese colonizers there were never quite so prevalent as the British and Afrikaners in South Africa.  And the Shangaan people in Mozambique also never lived directly under the rule of Zulus or even in close proximity to too many other tribes as they do in South Africa.

It may be that “social distance” among Shangaan people here was never increased to the point of not being able to look a person in the face simply because they never lived under the direct hierarchy that South African Shangaans have lived through.  In contrast, the beach towns we visited while on vacation had many Portuguese vacationers, many apparently intent to display their machismo or their wealth, and the Shangaan people there may have developed an inferior attitude about their own language in regards to outsiders.  Thus their frequent refusal to respond to us in Shangaan even when we spoke to them in Shangaan and heard them speaking to each other in Shangaan.

It’s a simple explanation for a few simple observations, and I may be incorrect in making these connections.  Nonetheless, I find it remarkable to note how essentially the same group of people (Shangaans) can differ in distinctly noticeable cultural ways in different countries and even in different but nearby towns within the same country.  A group of people’s cultural norms is a dynamic landscape influenced by many factors, including a history of the people who’ve dominated them either by legislative or economic means and the proximity of other people groups.

While it may be impossible to take all these factors into consideration at the same time, I think it’s important to remember or at least be aware of how cultural influence is continuing around the world.  Many are aware of what’s called “globalization” – of how many aspects of the dominant Western culture, even specifically the American culture, are being adopted in governments and urban/semi-urban centers around the world.

As a result of our large volume of media output which makes its way all around the world, American culture does more giving than taking.  Consequently, many people in developing nations now feel the need to buy a large stereo system so they can loudly blast the latest rap or house music singles before they feel the need to take care of other more basic needs; we simply don’t often cover those other more vital subjects in American media.

But cultural influence isn’t a one-way street.  You should take a look around America and see if you can figure out just what exactly has been recently borrowed from somewhere else.  The most obvious of course is our taste for “international” foods.  You wouldn’t have to explain to anyone in America what “salsa” or a “tortilla” is and most people quite enjoy Mexican food, cooking some form of it regularly even in homes with no other relation to Mexico or Mexicans.

It’s a bit further in the past, but most Americans are entirely unaware that a large portion of our language is derived from French.  I think that most Americans by now know that “gracias” is Spanish for “thank you” and the majority of American students are now learning Spanish from an early age, rather than French or German.  How long will it be before Spanish words make up a significant portion of the American language?

Many, maybe even all, “new age” religions have their fundamental thought processes borrowed from Eastern mysticism, and more and more Westerners are subscribing to these types of beliefs.

Cultural influence never ends as long as different cultures are coming into some form of proximity.  So when you come into proximity with someone from another culture, I guess the question to ask yourself is: are you sharing cultural traits that can help to build that person up or will it only tear them down, making them feel inferior or relegated to the bottom rung of a hierarchy?  I think that deserves a lot of careful thought, all the more so with the work that Lora and I are doing.

“Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another…   Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up-building.”  Romans 14:13,19    Even the early Christian church had troubles sorting out the colliding cultural influences of its recent converts, but Paul’s instructions on handling them are clear.  Go ahead and read that whole chapter, it’s a good one.