On a couple of occasions in recent months I have hosted fellow missionaries and friends at my house in the ELCSL compound for an outdoor potluck and bonfire. For Americans and Europeans in tropical Sierra Leone, there seems to be something wonderfully appealing and relaxing about gathering around a bonfire, roasting marshmallows and enjoying a peaceful evening under the nighttime sky. (Yes, it is possible to find marshmallows in Freetown, and sometimes the night air is relatively cool enough to enjoy a fire.)
One of my Sierra Leonean colleagues was looking at my garden the other day and as we talked together she noted the small pile of sticks and branches in front of my house. I explained that it was left over firewood and that sometimes when friends came over we built a fire. She wanted to know what kind of fire I made: was it a 3 stone fire?
This simple question is a great example of the challenges inherent in cross cultural communication. Even a subject as simple as building and using a fire highlights the different worlds and cultural frames of reference for Africans and Americans. In this case, I understood her question and could sort out the issues quite easily. The vast majority of Sierra Leoneans, including my colleague, cook their daily meals outdoors on a three stone fire. In Africa, cooking with fire is an essential part of daily life. For those of us who live in the west with electricity and gas and propane, outdoor fires are more for recreation and enjoyment, even on those occasions when we do use a fire for cooking. I was challenged a bit to explain this, and the idea of roasting marshmallows, to my colleague.
The simple truth is this: it is so easy to make assumptions about what the other is saying or doing in cross-cultural interactions. It is oh so easy to misunderstand one another without even realizing it. There is much to learn — about food and cooking, about the values that shape family and business, about how we understand the use of money and time and so much more. I am immensely grateful to the staff, the youth and the members of the ELCSL for being my teachers on a daily basis.
My learning continued in a fun way earlier today when a long discussed cooking lesson took place at my house. In this case, we cooked with charcoal, a common alternative here to cooking with fire (although charcoal production, along with cutting firewood both have serious implications for the environment.)