Under the Baobab Tree has moved!

Sunday 28 February 2010 by

Under the Baobab Tree has moved! We have merged the site with our own personal site, everytongue.co.uk.

If you just want to follow the Under the Baobab Tree section of the site you can find that here, and subscribe to the feed here.

If you’d like to follow our whole site (which also includes personal updates and news about our work with Wycliffe Bible Translators) you can go to the homepage or sign up to the general feed here.

We have done quite a bit of work on the Every Tongue site over the past couple of weeks, so if anything doesn’t work or doesn’t quite look right please let us know!

The Greater Commission: God’s Revelation and Our Response

Thursday 4 February 2010 by

When I applied to Wycliffe Bible Translators 7 years ago I was asked to write several doctrinal statements outlining my beliefs about various biblical themes, one of which was God’s mission. I was expected to discuss the basis on which church was involved in mission in the 21st Century.

In answering this question I relied heavily on a single verse from Matthew 28, often known as the “Great Commission”, where Jesus tells his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations”. I reasoned that if this was true for the disciples 2,000 years ago,  it must also be true for us today. If Jesus has given us this command, how can we claim to be his followers and not carry it out?

7 years on I would answer the question very differently. It’s not that what I said at the time isn’t true – I still believe that Jesus has commanded his church to make disciples of all nations. If this was the only verse in the Bible where God called his people to tell others about himself, I would still take Jesus’ commandment completely seriously.

My mistake was not in believing something that wasn’t true, but rather in believing something that was true, but ultimately missing out on the whole truth. Rather than just being a command tacked on as a panicked afterthought as Jesus realised he was leaving his disciples, God’s mission – his revelation of himself to all nations – is something that God started with the creation of the world, and has been doing ever since in and through that creation. For thousands of years God has been revealing himself to his people through the law, through prophets, through angels, visions, dreams, a donkey… and ultimately through his son.

Why is it important that we understand the whole truth about God’s mission to the nations? If we have one command from Jesus, surely that’s enough? 7 years ago that was my logic – if Jesus said something, who am I to even think about the matter any further? I should just take him at his word without question.

Our western culture likes to frame concepts abstractly and to reduce things to their logical extreme. If we believe Jesus is God, and God is truth, then Jesus always speaks the truth. If Jesus tells us to make disciples of all nations, why look any further for our mandate?

But actually we see in the Bible that God’s communication is much more holistic than we might at first think. The Bible isn’t a list of commands for us to follow like robots, but rather a collection of diverse writings – history, poetry, law, proverbs, prophecy, letters – which don’t just tell us how to live, but reveal to us the nature of God.

When God does give a command in the Bible it is always in the context of relationship. God reveals part of himself to his people, and then gives them a command which is their appropriate response.

In the verse in Matthew 28 Jesus says “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:18-20) If we look back to the ten commandments God says “I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. You must not have any other god but me…” (Deuteronomy 5:6-7) And in the following chapter “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) Repeatedly throughout the giving of the law, the commandments are framed as responses to the revelation of who God is.

My problem 7 years ago was that I understood and was willing to carry out God’s command, but I was generally ignorant of the revelation of God’s character that prompted the command. I knew that Jesus had commanded his church to make disciples of all nations, but I didn’t understand that the command was supposed to be my response to the revelation of the missional heart of God himself that we see throughout scripture. It was in fact an invitation to join in with what God had been doing since the beginning of the world.

What I believed was true, but it wasn’t the truth.

Understanding what God commands, but being ignorant of the revelation of God that prompts the command actually affects the way we carry out that command. If we hear Jesus’ call to make disciples of all nations, but don’t see the missional nature of God’s actions running through the Bible, we’ll be tempted to think that mission is our job – a task God has given us to complete alone. And so we’ll devise whatever strategies we can to accomplish that task as quickly and easily as possible. On the other hand if we understand that mission is at the heart of God’s character, and Jesus’ command is actually an invitation to be part of what God is doing, we’ll depend completely on him, in the knowledge that we are part of something so much bigger. We won’t be tempted to cut corners when we think God isn’t looking, or to achieve our goals in ways that are contrary to how God works.

Our culture values following instructions. As Christians we’re always tempted to reduce the Christian life to following rules, hoping that if we work hard enough at completing the tasks set before us, we’ll finally stand in front of God and hear him say “Well done good and faithful servant”. But I’m not sure that God defines obedience in this way.

The Bible teaches us that God cares deeply that we obey his commands, but that, despite what our reductionist culture teaches us, those commands can never be divorced from his relationship with us. We should obey God’s commands, but unless our obedience is a response to the revelation we see of him, and is a product of our relationship with him, we’re no better than the Pharisees in their hollow adherence to the rules.

Ultimately we need to have a whole-Bible understanding of God’s mission, not so that we can carry out the right commands and follow the right rules, but so that we can know the missional nature of our God, and through our relationship with him, respond by joining with him in sharing his nature with people from all nations.

The Mission of God: Christianity and Post-Modernism

Wednesday 3 February 2010 by

After meaning to for several months, I’ve finally started my way through Chris Wright’s mammoth book, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. As it’s 500 or so pages long there’s no way I’m going to remember all the good quotes when I get to the end, so I thought I might post a few as I go along, if nothing else to provide myself with a summary of what stood out to me in the book.

The first section is about the Bible and Mission. Wright says that he used to teach a course on the biblical basis of mission, but became increasingly convinced that the western evangelical method of listing out a few proof texts to prove what we’d already decided was true, just didn’t do justice to the missional nature of the whole Bible, including the Old Testament.

But before we can gain a fuller understanding of such a foundational theme we need to become aware of the cultural glasses* through which we view the Bible, and the world in general, and take a step back to see the bigger meta-narrative that runs through scripture. Wright suggests that reading the Bible together with people from all nations can give us a much broader and richer view of God, and shed light on the missional theme running through every page of scripture.

Even when we affirm (as I do) that the historical and salvation-historical context of biblical texts and their authors is of primary and objective importance in discerning their meaning and their significance, the plurality of perspectives from which readers read them is also a vital factor in the hermeneutical richness of the global church. What persons of one culture bring from that culture to their reading of a text may illuminate dimensions or implications of the text itself that persons of another culture may not have seen so clearly. (p39)

And on the previous page:

There is a great irony that the Western Protestant theological academy, which has its roots precisely in a hermeneutical revolution (the reformation), led by people who claimed the right to read scripture independently from the prevailing hegemony of medieval Catholic scholasticism, has been slow to give ear to those of other cultures who choose to read scriptures through their own eyes, though the situation is undoubtedly improving. (p38)

In many ways the acceptance that different cultures will read the same scriptures in different ways reflects the trend of post-modern thinking. But Wright says firstly that Christianity in effect got there a couple of millenia before post-modernism as we know it came into existence, and secondly that the church has something unique to contribute to the post-modern way of thinking:

What we [the church] have to offer, I contend, is a missional hermeneutic of the Bible. The Bible got there before postmodernity was dreamed of – the Bible which glories in diversity and celebrates multiple human cultures, the Bible which builds its most elevated theological claims on utterly particular and sometimes very local events, the Bible which seems everything in relational, not abstract, terms, and the Bible which does the bulk of its work through the medium of stories.

All these features of the Bible – cultural, local, relational, narrative – are welcome to the postmodern mind. Where the missional hermeneutic will part company with radical postmodernity, is in its insistence that through all the variety, locality, particularity and diversity, the Bible is nevertheless actually the story. This is the way it is. (p47)

If I can get my mind around it I’ll try to continue to post some thoughts from the rest of the book as Wright explores how God’s mission to his world is an/the overarching theme of the entire scripture narrative. It might take a few months however…!

*Someone once told me he was going to Kenya for a couple of weeks to give some Bible teaching to Pastors because “they always read the Bible through their own cultural glasses”. While agreeing with his statement, I don’t think he had appreciated the irony that he also had his own cultural glasses through which he read the Bible… it’s just that our glasses are a lot more obvious to those around us than they are to ourselves.

iPad iBad: A Backward Step for Software Freedom

Thursday 28 January 2010 by

Yesterday Apple announced their latest technological offering – the iPad – which is something between a phone, a laptop and an e-reader. Like all Apple products it looks extremely slick and shiny, and will certainly be popular with Apple enthusiasts, probably overtaking Amazon’s Kindle e-reader before too long.

As someone who enjoys reading (very slowly) and travels quite a bit, never quite knowing which country is really our home, the idea of having all our books on an e-reader -type device is quite appealing (especially with ever-increasingly airline luggage fees). In principle I like the idea of being able to read content – books, magazine, blogs… from a tablet, which is specialised for reading.

However, the problem with the iPad is a frustratingly familiar one when it comes to Apple’s business model. Everything is controlled by DRM, or Digital Rights Management – which basically means that even after you buy the device, and any content, Apple still controls exactly what you can and can’t do with the device and content.

Image: theregister.co.uk

The same thing happened with DRM music from the iTunes store, which has only recently become DRM-free (following years of criticism, and competition from DRM-free Amazon). My friend Andrew posted a link to this concise summary of the issue a couple of years ago:

Image: xkcd.com

Lifehacker has this to say about DRM in the iPad:

What’s dangerous about the iPad is that it’s much closer to a “real” computer than the iPhone is. If you dock it with the keyboard accessory, it really is just a laptop, probably powered somewhere along the lines of a MacBook Air. And yet this is a computer over which you have absolutely no control. And the question is: If we all continue to buy Apple’s locked-down products hand-over-fist (Jobs went so far as to talk about Apple as a mobile device company yesterday), what reason does Apple have not to keep moving forward with that model—a model that, to many, is defective by design.

Apple’s saying to consumers: “Trade in choice for a guarantee that this will work exactly as we designed it to, and you’ll never be upset with a computer again.” Unfortunately there’s no reason to believe the trade is necessary. At the very best, it seems like Apple’s extreme and obsessive control over what you’re allowed to run on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch is maybe delaying the point at which your software demands outpace the hardware, but even that’s is debatable. With the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch, you’re trading choice and control in exchange for unsubstantiated promises. read more

As I said before I love the concept of electronic e-readers, the problem is in the proprietary software and media formats. When you buy a book you read it, lend it, and keep it on your bookshelf to read again or just browse through in 20 years time. If it’s really good it might inspire someone else in 50 years.

DRM media is designed for you to read now. You can’t lend it to someone else. You can’t even transfer it to another device that you own. If you upgrade to a different device made by another company, you lose your content. And there’s no guarantee that your proprietary format will be readable in 5 years, let alone 50.

If the iPad follows the iPod, Apple will make billions from selling the iPad to Apple enthusiasts and others who like its slick appearance, other companies will produce their own versions, and then eventually everyone will agree on a format that can be played and transferred between any device. While not entirely open and transparent, the mp3 format for music functions in this way to a great extent – once you buy an MP3 player and music you can do what you like with them, provided you don’t break copyright rules.

The iPad is the latest fashion in our culture of instant gratification and short-term thinking. I’ll be waiting for an open source version where I know what I’m buying, and I know that the device and content belongs to me and isn’t still owned and controlled by a multi-billion dollar company.

Onesimus Online

Thursday 21 January 2010 by

I have a new favourite blog to follow: Onesimus Online, written by William Black, a lecturer at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology.

William is originally from North America, but is a strong critic of the arrogance of western theologians in assuming that Europe and North America has all the answers about God. Here’s a great explanation from a recent post about why a western perspective of the Bible isn’t sufficient for Africa

So thorough is the westernization of my African students that they don’t seem to notice that all of their education, all of their theology, all of their assumptions, can be traced to the efforts of well-meaning western missionaries. These missionaries came (and sometimes still come) with an assumed posture of superiority, namely that they are here to ‘help’ these Africans escape their darkness and get saved like us. Salvation too often means getting Africans to accept that our problems are their problems and that our solutions must be their solutions. For example, most Western missionaries assume that Christ has come to save us from our legal problem before a holy God; namely, that our sin makes us guilty before God and deserving of his condemnation and wrath. Christ resolves our problem by becoming our sin on the cross, bearing our punishment and thus freeing us from the penalty of the law. We are no longer under condemnation, but are accepted into fellowship with God, with the end result that we will go to heaven and not to hell.

This is standard fare for Western Evangelicals and their predecessors. And while a solid case may be made from the New Testament that this is indeed an aspect of our salvation, our polemical stance against the perceived ‘works righteousness’ of Roman Catholics has meant that this becomes increasingly, by over-emphasis, the only aspect of our salvation, or certainly the most important, and certainly what is preached from Sunday to Sunday.

The problem is that Africans on their own don’t perceive that their main problem before God is their compromised legal status. So in order to get them to understand ‘the gospel’ – or at least our Western understanding of the gospel – we missionaries must first teach them about God’s law and what sin is and what Christ has done to satisfy God’s law. Once they understand these things, then they are in a position to ‘accept Christ as their personal Savior’ and be forgiven. To this end, evangelists urge congregations to respond to the ‘free’ grace of God in Christ so that their sins may be forgiven and they be reconciled to God.

Again, this sounds so normal to our Western Evangelical ears that we may be immediately suspicious of anyone that seems to have a problem with it. But as mentioned above, most of my African friends don’t first and foremost worry about their legal standing before God. Rather, they are far more concerned about demons which seem to afflict every aspect of their lives, they are concerned about people who manipulate spiritual power for good and ill in other people’s lives, they are concerned about sicknesses and barrenness, for which there seems to be no cure, they are concerned about capricious weather that makes their crops fail and their cattle die and causes them to go hungry, and they are concerned about death. The tremendous irony that I observe is that our Western gospel has come full force into Kenya (and many other African countries) through the ministries of thousands of Western missionaries, resulting in the majority of people here and in a number of other countries professing faith in Christ and testifying to having been born again. And yet this gospel does not touch those aspects of their lives that reflect their deepest needs and most profound concerns. read more

I’m looking forward to keeping up with William’s posts as he critiques western theology and hints at alternative African perspectives.The church in Europe and North America can tend to be extremely mono-cultural in its judgement of what is and isn’t a correct reading of scripture, so it’s good to look outside of our little box occasionally to get a better perspective.

Avatar: A Clash of Cultures

Wednesday 20 January 2010 by

After commenting on a couple of blog reviews of the new movie Avatar, I thought it was time I wrote some thoughts myself. We saw the movie in 3-D a couple of weeks ago when we were in the US, and I have to say that although the combination of science fiction and crazy computer effects doesn’t normally make me very excited, I was moderately entertained by the 3-D-ness.

The plot was fairly predictable, but what I thought was interesting was the overall message of the film, which dealt with interaction between very different cultures. Without wanting to spoil the plot for people who haven’t seen the movie, it basically looks at how two cultures, which are very different with no previous contact, interact with each other. One culture is very dominant and aggressive, always fighting its surroundings to achieve its goals, and the other is more passive and at one with its environment, content to maintain the status quo.

Some Christians have expressed concern at the way paganistic rituals are glorified in the movie, but I think this criticism actually proves the point the movie is making. It’s very easy to sit and point out faults in a very alien culture to us, when we haven’t made the effort to understand people in it, and when we’re blissfully unaware of the problems of our own culture. How many of the people who were shocked at the pagan aspects of the minority culture also complained at the greed and consumerism in the majority culture?

I think the movie is an allegory, so I wouldn’t take the details of the pagan rituals of the minority group too seriously, just as I wouldn’t take the “science” part of the movie too seriously. Both the questionable science and the questionable paganism are parts of the story, and set the stage for the overall message of the movie. While I wouldn’t subscribe to the idea that holding on to a huge tree with your tail will solve all your problems, I thought the movie did very well in portraying the unseen relationships, values and wealth in so many minority societies around the world.

There are plenty of things to find fault with in the movie, but my concern is that those who criticise it are doing so for the wrong reasons. The movie doesn’t fit into a worldview of accumulating wealth, seizing opportunity and fighting against whatever or whoever stands in your way, but I don’t think that makes it a bad movie.

If you’re looking for something that reinforces this way of thinking, go and watch any other Hollywood movie. But if you’re open to thinking from a different perspective you might enjoy more than just the 3-D effects of Avatar.

Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith

Wednesday 23 December 2009 by

Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps is a fascinating look at communication media and the role these media play in shaping an entire culture. While Western culture emphasises the message and generally disregards the medium, Shane Hipps argues that media affect the way we think, and that until we recognise this fact we will be under their control.

Does that sound too deep? Let me give some examples…

Shane talks about how in oral cultures, where there is no written form of a language, people store information in their minds. When something is learned, it is passed on through the community, generally through telling and retelling stories. The culture therefore tends to be very community-oriented, and people derive their identity from the community.

When literacy is introduced to a culture, people have the luxury of thinking apart from the tribe, without worrying that their thoughts will disappear. The community is no longer needed to perpetuate ideas, and people will tend to become more individualistic.

“In pre-literate societies, a person’s identity is bound to the tribe; the notion of individual has little importance. However, the technology of writing, regardless of content, weakens and even destroys tribal bonds and profoundly amplifies the value of the individual.”

Another fascinating example that Shane gives is that of writing systems. He compares the Chinese pictographic alphabet, with the western phonetic alphabet. The western way of writing is a simple, linear, sequential list of symbols. The symbols in themselves have no meaning, but when put together they are very efficient at bringing meaning. As a result, western culture values abstract concepts, efficiency, and linear sequential thinking.

The Chinese writing system on the other hand involves symbols that actually represent a particular thing. In many ways this is a very inefficient way of writing – requiring a separate symbol for every single word – but the writing system is as Shane says “a visual art form”. Eastern culture similarly has developed to be nonlinear and holistic, valuing these things above efficiency and simplicity.

These media shape our culture, and even our understanding of Christianity. The Roman alphabet’s tendency towards efficiency and simplification has meant that western churches tend to emphasise the simplicity, rather than the mysticism of the Christian message. Our approach to the gospel is to present it as A + B + C = Go to Heaven, when other non-western cultures might take a more holistic and less simplified approach.

Shane goes on to look at other media since the printing press – particularly photographs (allowing for non-textual literate communication) and the telegraph (bringing instant communication over a distance). The telegraph, in many ways the forerunner of the internet, for example changed the culture by providing a mass of information. This mass had to be sorted through, and was assigned subjective value based on how the reader responded to it, paving the way for a move away from modernism, where the printed book with its sequential argument was king, to post-modernism, where a mass of information is weighed up by each person receiving it.

He then addresses social media (and what some might call our post-literate culture), which in many ways are a strange juxtaposition of previous media and their cultures. As a result they bring paradoxical ways of interacting with each other:

  • We are a tribe of individuals. Where pre-literate cultures value community, and literate cultures promote the individual, we long for the community of a tribe, but we define it on a strictly individualistic basis.
  • We feel empathy at a distance. Pre-literate cultures feel great empathy for others in the community, and literate cultures allow people to distance themselves from what is going on around them. As post-literates we paradoxically feel empathy at a distance – we empathise with celebrities and African Aids orphans, but we also feel detached from them and unable to relate to them.
  • We are anonymously intimate. Where pre-literate cultures are in many ways very intimate, and literacy brings the possibility of privacy and anonymity, as post-literates we are anonymously intimate. We share very personal and intimate parts of our lives with a large number of people, giving the illusion of intimacy as we present our façade to the world.

What does all this have to do with faith? Firstly Shane would say that it’s important for us to understand the culture that we live in, so that we are not trapped by it. Our culture likes to think that information is important, and the media of communication are simply serving us in our desire to pass on that information. But we need to be aware of how the media we use are actually influencing our entire view of the world, and of God himself.

But secondly Shane finishes the book by looking at the media God uses to communicate his message, and the fact that his ultimate means of communication with his people was through Jesus – a messenger who was himself the message. As Christians God has also chosen us to be his messengers, but like any medium of communication, we are part of the message itself.

“Why would God choose such a frail, failing, and inconsistent medium to embody his abiding message? Is it possible that God chose a collection of bent and bruised hearts to bear the message of redemption and reconciliation because that is a message in itself? Maybe God chose a medium of weakness to reveal his stunning power to reach through human failure, sin and sadness to grow new life.”

Flickering Pixels

I don’t feel I’ve done the book justice in this post – you’ll just have to read it for yourself. You may also be interested in listening to a sermon I gave in the US a couple of weeks ago about Peter telling Cornelius about Jesus in Acts 10, which was actually influenced by some of the ideas of how God communicates that originated from the final section of this book.

Google Translate: Swahili… bado kidogo

Thursday 27 August 2009 by

In the last couple of days Google has added Swahili to the list of languages supported by its Translate service. On one hand I’m very happy to see this addition as I think it has the potential to be a big step forward for development in east Africa. However, from first impressions the service still has a long way to go.

One of the main problems for Google is that Swahili is an agglutinative language – meaning that it puts morphemes (grammatical parts of words) together to form longer words. So it can be difficult for a machine to know where the morphemes (parts of the word carrying meaning) begin and end.

Here are some very simple examples that I tried putting into Google:

Swahili Morphemes English Google Translate
kupika ku-pika to cook cooking
ninapika ni-na-pika I am cooking I cooked
nilipika ni-li-pika I cooked I cooked
nitapika ni-ta-pika I will cook I cooked
sijapika si-ja-pika I have not cooked I cooked
apike a-pik-e let him cook apike
umepika u-me-pika you have cooked has cooked
tutapika tu-ta-pika we will cook we cooked
watakapopika wa-taka-po-pika when they will cook will kakopika
mlipokuwa mnapika m-li-po-kuwa m-na-pika when you (pl) were cooking as they were cooked
ikipikwa nasi i-ki-pik(w)a na-si if it is cooked by us it be boiled us
bado kidogo bado ki-dogo not quite yet still little

To be fair, from what I’ve seen the translations of single words isn’t bad at all. Where it falls down is in the grammar – translating Swahili past, present, future and negative-perfect tenses all to English past!

Going the other way, here a few English examples I tried:

English Swahili Google Translate English back-translation
many people watu wengi watu wengi many people
many trees miti mingi miti mingi many trees
many elephants tembo wengi wengi tembo many elephants [wrong word order]
many cars magari mengi wengi magari many cars [wrong word order and agreement]
I am cooking ninapika I am kupikia “I am” to cook with
I cooked nilipika mimi kupikwa I to be cooked
To be fair, from what I’ve seen the translations of single words isn’t bad at all. Kwa kweli, kutokana na yale ambayo nimeyaona, utafsiri wa maneno ya pekee siyo mbaya Kuwa na haki, kutokana na yale I’ve amemwona zote maneno ya wimbo sio mbaya wakati wote. In truth, coming from what “I’ve” he has seen all [wrong agreement and word order] words of song not bad all the time

At this point it looks to be a decent dictionary (although with nothing like the depth of the excellent Kamusi Project), and actually does ok with set phrases. However once you get past the set phrases that it knows it seems unable to understand the relatively simple grammar and come up with a meaningful translation.

This is obviously a work in progress, as the “Contribute a better translation” option shows. It would be interesting to know whether Google takes these user contributed translations and tries to work out how the grammars and structures of the languages compare, or whether it simply remembers the set translation in case anyone enters the exact same phrase again. The first would be fascinating to investigate, whereas I fear the second would be like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.

Changing our Perspective

Monday 24 August 2009 by

In my job I have the privilege of listening to many people talk about their work around the world with minority language communities (as well as reading from quite a few others online). Recently I’ve realised that increasingly these presentations fall into two categories – those that really excite me, and those that really frustrate me.

I’ve been realising that the difference has nothing to do with what the person presents about, the work they’re doing or the way they go about the work. It doesn’t have anything to do with how successful the work has been, or the impact that has been made.

In fact the difference is much more subtle – so much so that I’m only just starting to put my finger on it. It’s all about the perspective of the person when they talk about the work they’re doing and the community that they’re working with.

The first type of person realises that, in explaining his work with a language community, he is a bridge between you (the audience) and the community. But he doesn’t feel any connection with the community – instead he tries to help you to relate to him. He tells you of the large cultural divide, but he does so in order that you can understand him and the difficulties that he has in his work. He puts you in his shoes.

The second type of person also realises that he is a bridge between you (the listeners) and the community. But unlike the first person he helps you to understand and relate to the community. He tells you of the immense cultural differences, but he does in order to help you to understand and identify with people. He puts you in their shoes.

But I think it goes deeper than just the things we say. The way we talk about people ultimately shows what our perspective is – how we perceive them, and what we believe about them.

The problem for the first person is that he sees things from an ethnocentric perspective. He doesn’t seem to respect the local people, or feel that they are his equals. He has come to help them, not to understand them. He sees many differences, and naturally is impacted most by the frustrations and difficulties. He doesn’t seem to notice however, that his cultural mistakes and blindspots are equally frustrating to his hosts.

He works productively, but always judges the success of his work, not by how the local people perceive him, but by what his friends “back home” think. He sees his value in the work that he can do and the tasks that he can accomplish before he returns home.

The second person views himself from the perspective of the people he is serving amongst. He doesn’t see them as different, but rather sees himself as different. He respects the local people, and is more aware of the cultural offense he may cause to them than the frustrations he feels. He sees cultural differences not as an obstacle to overcome, but as an opportunity to learn, albeit often very difficult lessons, from people who have a vast amount of wisdom.

He works hard, but realises that the real impact that he will make will be in and through the relationships that he forms within the community, not in the tasks that he completes. He sees himself just as one small part of a bigger picture – a picture that has been developing for hundreds of years, and will continue long after he leaves.

In my experience, almost without exception every westerner starts off in the first category. Maybe it’s the way our culture conditions us, or maybe it’s just human nature. But some will gradually have their whole world turned upside-down, to see things from a totally different perspective. For many this takes years, decades or even a lifetime.

Looking back to my 3 years in Tanzania, I can see in myself just about all the characteristics of the first person. I am embarrassed to think back over some of the me-centred things that I have thought and said when talking to people in the UK about “my work”.

Over the last couple of years I’ve had the privilege of listening to a number of people who have humbly come alongside minority language communities as equals, wanting to build genuine relationships and open to learning as much as teaching. I just hope some of their wisdom rubs off on me, and I can take a step back to see the true picture.

Tribes

Sunday 31 May 2009 by

I’ve just finished reading the short book “Tribes” by Seth Godin. I found it inspiring, probably because it put into words things that I know to be true but have never really thought about or verbalised before.

The idea of the book is that tribes are groups of people following leaders, and that anyone can be a leader. Through inspiring stories and examples, Godin illustrates what leadership is, and what it isn’t.

People don’t believe what you tell them.

They rarely believe what you show them.

They often believe what their friends show them.

They always believe what they tell themselves.

What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and about change.

He would say that leadership is about investing in people, building relationships with them and inspiring them. As individuals are inspired and given the opportunity to connect with each other, the vision is passed on enthusiastically and exponentially. Management on the other hand is about controlling people and information, doing what is expected, and chasing numbers.

Leadership is essentially about bringing out the best in others, enabling them to come up with ideas that are better than what you could have told them. It’s about seeing an idea and a passion succeed because each person is free to reach their own potential.

Reflecting further, it made me realise that this has always been the essence of leadership. The problem is that the mass one-way communication of the 20th Century did its best to hide this. “Success” became about numbers, profits, fame and recognition. It was achieved by telling people what to do and how to do it. As the medium for communication (newspapers, published books, radio, TV) was fairly constant, achieving success became a matter of simply following the rules and controlling others to make sure that they were following the rules too.

But now in the 21st Century the world has changed. Communication is much easier, and is from anyone to anyone. Any idea, vision or passion, from any source, can change the world if it inspires enough people. Success of a concept is measured, not by numbers or profits, but by how many followers catch the vision, going on to inspire others to do the same.

The essence of leadership is clear again. It’s not about telling people what to do, controlling them and making them into productive machines – that’s management. Leadership is about connecting with people personally – helping them to realise things that they always knew deep down, and giving them the courage to reach the potential they always had.

The best thing about the book is that it doesn’t tell you how to be a good leader, it helps you to realise for yourself that you actually knew all along.


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