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Essential guide to cultural competence

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cultural competenceAcclimated to Africa: Cultural Competence for Westerners

Debbi DiGennaro

SIL International

Review by Vic Wiens

What is the subject?

As the title suggests, Acclimated to Africa is a guide for Westerners going to or living in Africa. More specifically, it is less about food, climate and disease, and more about interpersonal relations and pursuing mutuality of cultural appreciation.

The seven areas of focus are: organization, finances, friendships, spirituality, communication and conflict, leadership, and work.

Why this book?

The book is relevant and recommended reading. We live in a world where we are increasingly rubbing shoulders with Africans, either over there or just next door (or via Facebook).

Furthermore for Christians, Africa (especially the massive Sub-Saharan region) is where Christianity grows the fastest in the world. We do well to better understand and appreciate those people groups that will increasingly exercise leadership in the global family of faith.

Who is the author?

DiGennaro draws on nearly 10 years of experience as a non-profit worker in Nairobi, Kenya. She has served as her agency’s regional representative for East Africa since 2011, and as such is most familiar with Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

While the author is a Christian, indeed a worker with a Mennonite agency, the book’s perspective is not explicitly Christian. DiGennaro writes for all Western audiences from a secular perspective. All will appreciate the values of understanding those who are different from us, respect, care, peace-making, harmony, and community, among others.

Key insight

Nzuzi Mukawa (far left) and Victor Wiens (far right) of MB Mission building friendships with mission partners in Malawi. PHOTO courtesy Vic Wiens

Having visited Africa at least once a year for the last ten years, I had many “aha” moments as I read this book: “that’s why he acted that way”/”that’s why she said what she did.” Among so many wise tips, here’s one I felt was a key insight: “Find an African person who is a genuine peer or as close to a peer as possible (socially, economically, academically), then feed that relationship. Learn from that person; take her perspective seriously; and invest in the connection.”

Additional material

I found most insightful some of the practical additions such as sidebar tips, summary dialogues between an African and a Westerner, and cartoon illustrations of key concepts. Charts and tables comparing and contrasting African and Western approaches may be generalizations, but are nevertheless helpful. The appendices on adjustments and learning tools will be useful even to the short-term visitor.

Downside

The book is not about value-judgments; rather, it describes what is and how to navigate with greater competence in that reality. In light of this approach, the chapter (5) on African spirituality was somewhat disappointing. The author articulated well the traditional African worldview (animism), yet was hesitant to point out the flaws in this worldview vis-à-vis a biblical perspective.

This chapter, unlike others, was limited to explaining African spirituality, with some promotion of its values (harmony, community, and land). Those seeking assistance in bringing the gospel message will find some help here, but will need to go beyond (no critique here, only clarification).

Who should read this book?

Anyone planning to live in Africa or visit for a purpose beyond tourism should read this book: mission and service workers or professionals; anyone dealing with African partners – agency, church, or NGO personnel.

It will also serve anyone who has African friends, whether nearby or virtually. I have recommended it to my agency’s workers going to Africa.

[Victor Wiens serves as Mission Capacity Building Coach for MB Mission.

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