Monday, December 22, 2008

Cross-Cultural Awareness 101

We overheard an interesting conversation at a neighbouring table while we were eating lunch at a little restaurant in downtown Ouaga one weekend. No, we weren’t eavesdropping! The lady just spoke loudly enough so that everyone in the place could easily hear her, whether they wanted to or not!

It seems that a number of years ago, the lady speaking (a white woman from America) had gotten married to a Mossi man from Burkina. Whether she was originally here with the Peace Corps, with a development organization, or with the embassy, I don’t know. In any case, it turned out to be a culturally enlightening experience for her, an experience that she had come to share with another American lady who, we soon discovered, was planning to also marry a Burkinabè man.

Her main piece of advice? Check out the family situation! She was not aware of all the other family members that her husband had to support, something that was a tremendous drain on their financial resources. But that wasn’t all. When her husband’s sister came to visit, she treated the American wife like she was the servant girl, telling her to run errands and do things for her. And when her husband’s mother came to visit, she ignored the wife completely! And her husband would do nothing about it. She felt that her husband had deceived her by not being up front and telling her about his family situation before they were married.

Kathy & I couldn’t help but shake our heads. This poor woman had obviously missed taking Cross-Cultural Awareness 101. What Burkinabè man would think it necessary to tell his fiancé about his family situation? What business is it of hers? Whatever it is, she’s just going to have to accept it anyway, right? Unless he’s been to Europe or America, a Burkinabè man wouldn’t know that American women expect to be treated differently in a marriage relationship than an African wife. Even if he did, he’ll just assume that since she’s marrying him, her expectations and behaviour will now be just like that of a Burkinabè woman. After all, this is Burkina Faso she’s living in, not the USA! And she’s not marrying an American, is she?

As for the way the family treats her, well, a man’s relationship to his family takes priority over his relationship with his spouse. They will always be his family, but a wife is regarded as a stranger, a foreigner that’s come into the family. Should the husband die, his family will come and take the children to finish raising them. And the widow? Well, she can just go her merry way. She’s not really part of the family anyway! So of course the wife is going to be treated like the servant girl by other family members.

Since this woman was the one who had had some cross-cultural exposure as a result of having come to Burkina, she should have expected such differences, and should have been the one to do some research into what was expected of her as the wife of a Mossi man. Or, like she was doing for her friend, someone with experience should have sat down with her and explained to her what she was in for. However, she was probably so smitten by Cupid at the time that she wouldn’t have listened to anyone that had tried to tell her anything anyway. She would have explained everything away, or just let it go in one ear and out the other, saying that she was sure everything was going to be just fine. From what we could tell, that’s exactly what her friend was doing!

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