Saturday, August 7, 2010

Respect, Response, Relevance

Those of us who are veterans of Peace Corps and other long or even short-term international experience know, when choosing to live in another country for a period of time, to expect cultural differences and surprises.

We set forth with the intention to learn about another set of customs and world views, as well as to offer service. We come with an attitude and orientation that is respectful, curious, interested. While we are sometimes confused, we try to be always listening with an open mind and heart--to the best of our ability. We generally find many common values. We often even find some unfamiliar but comfortable practices and customs we would like to import back into our home settings. And we also find some practices and customs that disturb us or become a challenge.

It's easy to underestimate how difficult it can be to be respectful toward cultural values that contradict those we cherish. I've been reflecting on this because it impacts my teaching as well as my daily life here in Zambia.

The other day, Shalom, a social work student, was the morning speaker in chapel. The theme was covenant. She began by using an example to illustrate the concept of covenant. Her example was marriage. Marriage was a covenant, she argued, in which the husband was head and the wife was submissive. As she continued, I found it hard to listen. I wanted to tell her that it was possible to have a partnership marriage. I wanted to explain the benefits of a more egalitarian covenant.

In my human behavior class, we had a lively discussion about corporal punishment of children. Beatings and "canings" are common practice. They are defended as necessary to teach correct behavior at home and to maintain order and respect at school. One student disagreed with her classmates about the efficacy and necessity of severe corporal punishment, but she was clearly in the minority on this issue. In this class I did present theory and research evidence from social learning regarding the relative effectiveness of harsh physical punishment and other forms of discipline. To be fair, I acknowledged that the research was mostly conducted in Anglo European settings, although some recent studies include cultural diversity in the subjects or cross-cultural comparisons. I heard a speaker on a BBC radio program argue that the African child was different and physical discipline was a necessary part of the culture.

Belief in witchcraft and demonic spirits is strong here as a way of explaining misfortune or illness, even among some well-educated people. There was a meeting of the student body to discuss an issue that arose in the dormitory last semester. A student felt she was being "used" by evil spirits and asked some of her friends to come to her room to pray with her. Their prayers were not only fervent, but loud. It was near midnight, and it awakened other students. There is a form of prayer that involves shouting and walking while praying, and it had happened late at night in the dorms before. So the Head of Programs set a policy that while Mindolo encouraged prayer, loud praying could not take place in the dormitories after 10 pm. Students needed to go to the chapel or another location if they wanted to pray this way at night. He further recommended that students who felt possessed should go to their pastors for exorcism.

In the Congo, the UN has reported a serious problem of children accused of witchcraft. Many are driven from their homes, or they run away from the harsh "treatments" imposed on them to rid them of evil spirits. They end up as street children. This is not widespread in Zambia, but my students say it happens here, particularly in remote villages. No one defended such scapegoating, but many seemed comfortable with the concept of external spirits that could harm people. Most felt it was the devil at work causing this trouble.

One part of the course I am teaching is a module on basic counseling, since these students will be expected to work with HIV+ persons and others in need of support. I gave them handouts on active listening and other counseling skills and told them we would practice in class. The next session, one of the students announced that she was confused because some of the material I gave them to read stated that giving advice was not a good counseling technique. She--and indeed, the entire class--thought that giving advice was the primary purpose of counseling. They were shocked when I affirmed that giving advice was not the main role and function of counseling. "But they will come seeking advice," they insisted. I explained the desirability of helping people discover within themselves what they needed to do, and the benefit of clients learning problem-solving skills.

But I was also questioning myself: Is this model I'm teaching a Western cultural construct? Can giving advice be a more appropriate and effective model in this culture? Are there some universal values in social work along with others that are particular to a given culture? Certainly respect for the dignity and worth of every individual seems basic, but perhaps self-determination has different dimensions and expressions in cultures that value family obligations and respect for authority.

And so I struggle... And wonder... And try to listen and learn...


  1. Very thoughtful reflection, Ann. Thanks. I struggle with these very issues when I teach ethics. Judith McDaniel

  2. A classic dilemma--which I'd argue shows up almost as often doing social work in western countries. Oversimplifying a complex topic: I personally use the "flourishing test". If the cultural construct taken-as-a-whole leads to flourishing for person-in-her-environment, I'll buy in. If the construct taken as a whole leads to stifling of flourishing, I won't buy in. I realize I'm begging the question by switching to the vague concept of flourishing--but that helps me look at something like caning or exorcism or the burkha through the lens of working well for the people involved without getting caught up in politics. You can see in the body language, in the totality-of-their-lives, in the smiles and looks in the eyes, and in one's own story, especially a person looking back over her life in her later years.Anyway, you got me thinking...

  3. "Giving advice" is a much more ancient construct than "finding one's own resources." Prehistoric humans depended on the greater knowledge of their elders to stay alive. But we no longer have to depend on grandma or grandpa to show us how to avoid being eaten by lions. Today's "lions" are less dangerous but much more subtle. Obviously we need both.