The Risk of Listening
Updated: Apr 29, 2022
This blog post is about Nambia. Yes, I’m going there. Not literally, because there is no country of Nambia.
In a speech to African leaders at the United Nations last week, the President referred twice to the country of Nambia with regard to an increasingly self-sufficient health care system. To be clear, there are countries in Africa where the names have changed: Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, Gold Coast to Ghana, Belgian Congo to Congo to Zaire to Congo. And countries have split so that one becomes two: in 2011, the government of Sudan gave its blessing for an independent South Sudan. But, there is not, and never has been, a country of Nambia.
I realize it’s easy to jump on this one, point the finger at the President, shake a fist at his questionable diplomatic skills and geographical disregard. After joining in on the jokes, tweets and retweets that ensued, I realized that I shouldn’t be too smug about this. Many of us (include me in this) might do well to take a step back and reflect on exactly how much we know about the places we purport to care deeply about. I say this as someone who regularly stands up in front of groups and dispenses historical facts, relevant information and stories about the people our non-profit works with in Ghana, West Africa. I’ve read stacks of books and articles on the country, its culture, history, and challenges. I’ve traveled back and forth over the past six years and have daily communication with Ghanaians working in the communities where the corresponding NGO is located. And still, I’m more like someone who makes claims about the progress of Nambia than I am someone who has a handle on the complexities of Ghana. Not that long ago, this would have sent me into a paralyzing crisis of confidence, but now I find it to be a necessary confession.
For the first couple of years, despite my attempts to study up and travel frequently so I could understand the culture I was working with, I was constantly offending, confusing, and, yes, angering a few people in Ghana as I stumbled my way forward. It was humbling, and although I’ve learned a little along the way, I’m still amazed that our staff there puts up with me. This recent news-making event by our President (and yes, I realize that we’ve moved on to other shocking current events) has me thinking about our Western culture and the way we land in countries with our brilliant ideas, savior mentality, and words of wisdom. We perceive ourselves as great teachers, but concentrate little effort on becoming better learners, and yet if we truly want to be people with an effective level of global consciousness, we must move from talking to listening.
Swedish novelist Henning Mankell moved to Mozambique, Africa because he wanted to finally experience life outside of a Western egocentricity, and because the plane ticket was the cheapest. He ended up staying for 25 years. Although most of his personal writing about Africa is centered around the differences in storytelling between the Western and African mind, he says this about listening:
In Africa listening is a guiding principle. It’s a principle that’s been lost in the constant chatter of the Western world, where no one seems to have the time or even the desire to listen to anyone else. It’s as if we have completely lost the ability to listen. We talk and talk, and we end up frightened by silence, the refuge of those who are at a loss for an answer.
I want to believe that those of us who work cross-culturally care deeply about the work we are doing and the people with whom we work, and yet it seems we spend so little time learning from them. We talk and talk, and then we board a plane and depart, knowing little more about the depths of the culture we have been in than when we arrived. So I’m going to slowly and carefully ease out on the limb and say it: This is not an issue of how informed we are. It’s an issue of how much we care about how informed we are.
Being informed can be risky. If we listen and learn, then discover that our good works might actually bring harm or are not as effective as we had hoped and promised, then what do we do with that information? Some just continue to stumble down the road with their message and methods because, to be honest, we may not want to discover that our work benefits us far more than it benefits the people we seek to help. And what if, after all that listening, we’re at a loss for an answer?
Here’s my proposal: For a while, let’s lay aside our brilliant ideas; tuck away our prepared spiel and glad tidings; tear up our agendas and rethink our missions. And then, let’s be quiet and really listen, learn, and posture ourselves in humility and radical solidarity with all people in real places.