In Kibuye, we are the mzungu or white people. We are often reminded of this identity as we hear “ma-zoooon-gu” rising up from the valley on a breeze from a disembodied voice. In this case, the speaker is far away and is usually shrouded in the banana trees below. Even driving down the road at high speeds, groups of children remind us of who we are in this place as they yell, “mzungu” in a staccato-like fashion so as to get it all in before the car passes. Then, there is the up close and personal, “Mzungu, give me…” that has a more demanding tone. No matter how or when it is said, most mzungu feel annoyed on some level by the term – even though, generally, we make light of it.
In order to illustrate why a low-level annoyance surrounds these situations, I will share two stories. A couple of months ago, I talked to our daughter and some of her friends about the danger of telling secrets. Our daughter and Girl One were whispering and Girl Two heard her name – nothing else, just her name. She burst into tears, convinced that these girls who were supposed to be her friends were saying mean things about her. More than that, she felt left out by people she loved and wanted to be loved by.
This “kid drama” was solved in one conversation, apologies were issued, eyes were dried, and all was right again in their world as they played together that afternoon. The above scenario is a microcosm of life in Burundi for the white westerner, however. When I walk into church, rows of people turn around and stare – several times, often tittering to one another, smiling, and staring again. Though the adult drama plays out differently (we smile and wave or greet the onlookers with “Amahoro” rather than bursting into tears), the confusion in my heart is not dissimilar from my crying five-year-old friend. Even when I can enjoy the moment for what it is or make silly jokes about feeling like one of the Big Five that safari-goers hope to see in places like Kenya, it does point out the obvious – I am other, the odd one out.
More than being the odd one out, though, this situation brings up questions of identity. To most in Kibuye, I am a white person. Within our missionary community, I am a teacher. Many American churches associate me with the role of missionary. So, I am a white missionary teacher. Or, am I?
Crossing cultures is a constant process of deconstructing and reconstructing one’s identity. It is about facing the loss of who you’ve always been, evaluating the things that demand to act as a replacement for those aspects of my identity that need to be or can be forsaken, and seeking the truth about who I actually am. Moreover, it is about seeking the truth about who God is and who I am in light of who He is. False identities (white missionary teacher) threaten to overtake me daily, but they are not who I am.
But God is faithful. He will be faithful to give me more of Himself, more of His love, and more security in my identity in Christ as I continue in the process of crossing cultures. He will remind me that I am not an object, a role, or even a dispensary of goods and services (“Mzungu, give me…). He will continue to remind me that I am His child – safe and secure in His love.
The challenge for me (and I suspect for many missionaries) is to live into my identity in Christ rather than under the burden of any other identity that does not reflect my wholeness in and unity to Jesus. This is the only way I can love my neighbors – outside or inside the wall of our compound, outside or inside the boundaries of Burundi.