Monday, October 12, 2015

Performance of African and Western Missionaries--George's Blog

1.    Performance of African and Western Missionaries

African missionaries share many commonalities with Western missionaries.   They share a desire to serve the Lord by proclaiming the gospel.   Usually they bring great enthusiasm and spirit to their callings, leaving their short two-week stay in the MTC (“Mission Training Center”) hyped up and ready to go.   Both are roughly the same age, have little education, lack practical world experience, and often know little about the Church.   They are on the cusp of beginning their adult lives and becoming independent—they are unmarried, have no commitments to provide for others’ support, and still have most of their adult decisions before them—choices about college, vocational training, full-time jobs, marriage and families.  

But it would be a mistake to think of African and Western missionaries as being too similar.   The differences between them are dramatic.   African missionaries frequently can understand some of the local dialects, have similar cultural backgrounds, and have a better grasp of the challenges facing young Malawians.   The local food, living arrangements, and cultural norms and expectations—dealing with home visits, marriages, funerals, church attendance and worship—are not strange.   On average the African missionaries are slightly older than their Western counterparts, have fewer years in the Church, and struggle more speaking English fluently.    Rarely is the African missionary from a multi-generational church family, with a history of missionary service.  Indeed, most come from homes where they are the sole members of the Church, or just one of a few, so family support, financial or emotional, for missionary service is not expected.   They do not have families pressuring them to go on missions, so the young Africans serve only if they really wanted to go.      How rooted African missionaries are in the Church often depends upon whether they come from an African country where the Church has had a presence for many years.   Missionaries from Malawi, where the Church is so new, obviously are new members, usually within the last two to four years, and more often than not they are the only members in their family.   They have vibrant testimonies and are excited to serve missions, but they lack the seasoning of African missionaries coming from South Africa, for example.  
While there is certainly variance in the backgrounds of Western missionaries, it is not unusual to find some who have been in the Church their entire lives, come from Mormon stock, and are thoroughly indoctrinated in the cultural and social side of the Mormon faith.   They have been pointing toward mission calls since their early experiences at home and in Primary, singing such favorite primary songs as “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission.”   They know how the Church functions, having been in large, fully-staffed wards, with strong priesthood and auxiliary programs.   In contrast, many new African missionaries have never seen a functional primary, relief society, young men, or young women’s program.  
African missionaries would, generally speaking, be thought to have a distinct advantage in “coping” with the challenges of adapting to life in Malawi.   Most come from countries far more prosperous than Malawi—measured in terms of employment opportunities, cars on the road, moped and motorized bike traffic, quality of housing and educational opportunities.   Non-Malawian missionaries often are quick to point out that their home countries are quite different than Malawi   But they generally “get life” in Malawi—they are not thrown off stride by the seasonal swarms of insects, chaotic city life, people on the street, street vendors, the ever present litter, periodic black outs (energy saving measures), and poverty.   On the other hand, Western missionaries would seem better equipped to deal with modernity—use of cell phones (though everyone in Africa has a cell phone), familiarity with Western culture, understanding how the Church is supposed to operate.  Perhaps surprisingly, it is a toss-up when it comes to bible knowledge.  Westerners have had four years of seminary, but some Africans, including the Malawians, take “bible knowledge” classes in school, and are very familiar with the stories from the Old and New Testament, often quoting verbatim passages from the scriptures.   
Yet having made these general observations, Carole and I can’t see much of difference in the quality of the performance of the African and Western missionaries.   Somehow both sets of missionaries are resilient, adjusting quickly to their new circumstances (after all, being a missionary is new to all of them), and, for the most part, thriving.   Some of the strongest missionaries are African, some Western.   Some of the best prepared are African, some Western.   Some of those who struggle the most, and who seem to give the mission president the most grief, are African, some Western.   Carole and I know we just don’t have enough information about the “behind-the-scenes” experiences of the missionaries to be in a position to make valid comparisons across the two groups. No doubt, President Erickson will have a more balanced view on the relative performance of the missionaries as a group.   The only difference we see is that the African missionaries do not “drive.”   We assume the reason is quite simple—Westerners have drivers’ licenses, and Africans do not.