Our first year in Africa has come to an end, and now we find ourselves in a state of transition as we spend a couple of weeks in France prior to our return to the States. It has only been one day since we left Cameroon, and already I feel as if the experience was surreal. As I sat in the train station in Paris following our arrival from Yaoundé, I felt as if the last year of our lives had been a vivid dream. I thought back to prior travels when I had visited Africa for much shorter periods of time, and I remembered how quickly my cultural mode had changed. I remembered having the same sense of incredible distance from the world I had just left behind. This time, however, it was different. This time something had changed. This time I had come back with a mission, a sense of responsibility to those we left behind and told that we would be back to continue what we had started. This time I felt incomplete.
I thought that perhaps I was experiencing that phenomenon known as “reverse culture shock”, where the encounter with our own culture after experiencing another for an extended period of time can be similar to the initial shock felt in the foreign culture. I had already gone through these episodes during my return from Africa the first time in 2001 and again in 2005. Although I was still experiencing similar “symptoms”, there was another force at work that was not adequately diagnosed as culture shock. It was as I had been rewired internally. I was seeing the world with new eyes. I had a fresh perspective on the world and the role I played in it. I also possessed a renewed sense of hope for the possibility of change in the world. This time I returned with a story to tell; my own story that I felt others needed to hear to know that they too had a role to play. I had witnessed a small army of families and individuals who had shared a common vision of a better world – physically, spiritually and socially – and that army was in need of recruits. Although I had only been in Cameroon, I imagined this united army working across the globe to alleviate poverty, injustice, ignorance, corruption, disease and the multitude of obstacles standing in the way of a better tomorrow. It truly is a war, and it truly is global.
The other symptoms of culture shock are present, of course. In our case, it’s a little unique this time; instead of passing directly from Cameroon to our own culture, we find ourselves in a bit of an intermediary culture here in Europe. It’s probably better for our cultural sanity that we didn’t rush back to the States, where life moves so quickly and we would probably be overwhelmed with extreme changes in our daily living conditions. I have always appreciated the European lifestyle and now see more similarities to the life we had come to known in Africa than I would have expected. For example, it has been my experience that the French appreciate greetings, much like our Cameroonian brothers and sisters. Their extensive use of public transport also reminds me of our many adventures in “bush taxis” throughout the duration of our stay in Africa. The French and Cameroonians also demonstrate a greater appreciation for the variety of things that are edible than I recall in America.
Then there are the things that are not shared between the African and Western cultures. We had always heard a similar story from expatriates about their reaction to the supermarket upon their return to their home country. The story always included a sense of awe experienced at finding everything they needed in one store and the difficulty in making a decision when confronted by an overwhelming selection of products. The choice of which brand to choose seemed to be too much. We, too, would now have our own supermarket story. We spent the first 30 minutes just walking around looking at things in a state of amazement. I was ashamed of my instinct to buy something because it was available to me. The onslaught of new or improved technology that had developed in only a year was hard to fathom. More compact computers and cameras, blue ray technology (still don’t quite fully understand that one), digital price tags in the aisles for the various products, slimmer TVs and IPods were just some of these. When it finally came time to shop, I realized I had become the most indecisive person in the world. I didn’t know which box of rice to buy or what chocolate candy I would savor. A trip to the store that would have taken 10 minutes prior to my exposure to the African market now was taking ten times as long as I fumbled through aisle after aisle. And what about the vendor? There was no one to haggle with over the price, and I surely wasn’t happy with any of those that were clearly marked on each item we added to our basket. Maybe, I thought, we could try to convince the young guy at the cash register that they were asking way too much for the meat…
I think the orderliness, cleanliness and newness of everything is what stood out the most for me as we completed our errands in town. Although I remembered my appreciation for such things, it also made me very uncomfortable. The smoothly paved roads and lack of dust caught me off guard. Something didn’t seem right. And then there was the luster associated with every car and building that seemed out of place. And why was everyone dressed in such dark clothing? Where did the sun go? Why is it so darn cold?! And then I reminded myself – culture shock, my friend, culture shock (not to mention climate shock).
Now the time has come to reflect upon our experience and digest the lessons learned as we prepare for the next chapter. I was recently asked if there was a particular story that captured our experience thus far in Cameroon. I think the only way to sum up our experience is to say we can’t sum it up. It seems there is so much diversity in this country in the people, the customs, the language, the climate and the landscape. The same has been true of our ministry. In this past year we have stood before kings (traditional ones at least), sat with lepers and slept with refugees. We have witnessed persecution and corruption on a level we have never known, but we have also seen love, perseverance and the Gospel expressed in unfathomable ways. I have written many blogs about cultural assimilation and spiritual encounters, and, as I look them over in search of a story that would capture it all, I can only say that we came to Cameroon in search of the unreached and certainly found them in places we would never have imagined.