Two Years In: Ramblings from the New Kid on the Block

The experience of being thrown into another culture was once described to me as, effectively, attempting to sit down at an ongoing card game and begin playing with no prior knowledge of the rules. I think that about sums it up. It is incredibly awkward. The only thing that can really keep you going is - as Trey, the guy who used to sit behind me in church was fond of shouting - 'grace! Grace! GRACE!'

I don't really need to say any more than what I've already said about the difficulties of learning how to live in Mozambique. Pretty much everything, from initial culture fatigue, to language barriers (two posts, there. Yikes!) to learning how to live with friction, to constantly standing out, to learning how to deal with grief has already been covered in probably needless detail. For here and now, let it be sufficient for me to say that I thank God for the extreme clarity with which he called me to Mozambique, because if I hadn't had that certainty to hold on to, I'd probably have turned and run. As it was, I hung on. I made a lot of mistakes, I laughed about them even when I wanted to cry.

I learned. 

Congratulations to meee!

Last night, while I was filming the church service and shouting over my shoulder the words that the translator was missing ("Sheep!" "Keys!" "Stitches!"), I had a sudden realization of just how far I've come. In the space of two years, I have gone from being an outsider who knew no-one and spoke only English to an occasional translation consultant who works on the media team and is hailed by a wide variety of nicknames by a wide variety of people on the street, in the chapa, in the church. 

"Verdadeira Moçambicana!" and, "I can't believe you've only been here two years! You speak Portuguese so well!" Are phrases I hear often, and, though I know they must be taken with a grain of salt, they are music to my ears. Even more important are the subtler expressions of trust and acceptance.

People who practice their English with me because they know I won't laugh or get impatient.

People who feel free to give me correction and advice, because they know I'll accept it humbly.

People who, in a multitude of small ways, invite me into deeper relationship; to know and be known.

And then, of course, there are the nicknames and the inside jokes. So many of them.

When visitors dubbed me 'the white Mozambican' I was extremely pleased. Not because it was really true, but because it showed that I was, in some measure, succeeding in my mission to immerse myself so completely into the culture around me that I could understand it and explain it to others. Of course, I realize there are limits to how Mozambican a white girl from America can become. To some extent, I will always be an outsider. I am learning how to be okay with this. I couldn't erase my Indo-European ancestry, even if I wanted to (and really, I don't). But I have made valiant efforts to understand the people around me. And I think that, at last, those efforts are beginning to pay off

Poor Flávia! She spoke so quickly and so quietly when I first got to know her that I was constantly asking her to repeat herself

Immersing yourself in a foreign culture is, by turns, terrifying and mind-numbingly dull. I knew, when I arrived here, that immersion would be the only way I could really get to know Mozambique and Mozambicans, but forcing myself to go out there and keep trying even when I was certain I'd fail yet again was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. I am actually a fairly lazy individual, but fortunately, God knows this, and He gave me the circumstances I needed to push myself and keep on pushing.

If I'd lived on a traditional missionary base, with a ready-made network of friends who spoke my language and shared some of my cultural norms, I wouldn't have felt the need for companionship that kept driving me to try to make friends. If I'd been surrounded by translators and English speakers, I'd have managed to get by without speaking Portuguese. If I'd had a certain project to perform in a specified amount of time, I would've focused on helping Mozambique instead of getting to know Mozambicans.

Thankfully, for me, that wasn't the case.

I wasn't one of those hard-core folks who shows up in a strange country and lives with a host family who doesn't speak English. But I did arrive here in the company of just two other Americans, to work with a Mozambican-led church. We lived in a normal, city apartment. We interacted primarily with people who spoke little or no English. We had no car, so we did all of our shopping on foot and by public transport. It was just the right set of circumstances to push me out of my comfort zone, but also leave me feeling secure enough that I didn't panic (often). Looking back, I can really only take credit for doing two things correctly there at the beginning: 

  • Praying for a Mozambican friend and then interacting with her when she came along. 
  • Somewhat-actively avoiding getting into the groups of other missionaries and ex-pats for a good while after my arrival here so that my social circle would be where it needed to be, not where it was easy to establish. 

I have also discovered that waving my hands improves my Portuguese. Photo: Melissa Erikson


Probably the biggest thing that my fellow missionaries did right* was not pressuring me into project mode. They would occasionally ask if there was something I felt God wanted me to do, and when there wasn't, the subject would be dropped. 

I didn't have a tremendous list of things I was supposed to accomplish in order to prove to my supporters back in the States that I was actually using their money wisely. Getting stuff done is always much, much easier than getting to know people, and I know that, if I'd had a big project to complete, I would have chosen that over the long hours of awkward socialization and church services. This was, at the time, a very mixed blessing as it was desperately difficult for me to justify my existence in Mozambique. I would look back at the end of my day and wonder what exactly I'd accomplished. I'd done some odd jobs and tried to speak Portuguese. Fantastic! The other missionaries I knew were training pastors and holding mass evangelisms and teaching English. The fact that I had managed to write a newsletter or ask where the toilet was looked decidedly lackluster in comparison. I would reach the end of the day feeling completely exhausted and reflect that I had spent all my energy on...nothing.   

I was pretty sure that I was doing it all wrong, so I did what I frequently do when I'm feeling like a worthless failure. I talked to my dad. And he told me the story of one of the missionaries he knows, and how this man's organization doesn't allow their missionaries to start anything, in any country, until they've lived in that country for several years.

"Don't look at it as wasted time, Janie." He said. "You're learning about Mozambique."

That conversation helped to further shift my thinking from project mode to people mode. I still had a horrific time responding to other missionaries' questions of  'what exactly do you do here, anyway?' (so I mostly still avoided personal conversations with other missionaries as much as possible). But every time I started feeling insecure, I would tell myself that I was building a foundation. A foundation of relationships, of understanding, of trust, so that, if the day came when God revealed some big project He wanted me to accomplish in Mozambique, I would be able to establish it in a culturally relevant way.

Or, I can just use all my 'Madam Google Translate' skills to help make jam...


Relationships, especially cross-cultural ones, take a long, long time to develop. Only in recent months have some of the relationships I started when I first arrived here gone beyond the superficial, to a place where people are telling me about real struggles, and I have enough linguistic skill and cultural context to encourage and pray for them in meaningful ways. I am still learning how to be a friend in a culture where the unwritten rules of relationship are sometimes vastly different from the unwritten rules I've had ingrained in me since childhood. I am learning how trust works; how to show it, how to react when I receive it. I am learning how to disagree with people in a way that isn't shaming, how to present new ideas respectfully, and when 'you're fat' is a compliment and when it's a derogatory remark. I am a newcomer in a society that has been going on without me for a very long time, where some of the things (like dancing in church) that come as naturally as breathing to my friends are incredibly difficult for me to pick up (I am still not a very good dancer but there is again, as Trey would say, 'grace, grace, grace'). I still do not have one of those specific projects that every good missionary is probably supposed to have and I probably am not, by some people's standards, a very good missionary. I just pitch in wherever I'm needed, and my main objective in any project or interaction is still, primarily, to learn. I am incredibly grateful for the circumstances that are allowing me to take this difficult, yet delightful, journey into Mozambican culture with comparatively little pressure to perform or accomplish to American standards.

Nowadays, I still have no idea when, or if, God will ever reveal a personal project to undertake here in Mozambique. But I am beginning to see some fruits from all the hours I have spent relating to people and attempting to converse in Portuguese. One of the things I've learned here is that you never know who will be watching you, and I've discovered that my willingness to be humble, face challenges, and learn from anyone who'll take the time to teach me has called forth admiration and respect from several unsuspected sources.

Jesus spoke the truth (imagine that) when He said 'where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.' I've invested rather a lot of treasure, in the form of time, service, laughter, tears, and prayer, into Mozambique and Mozambicans. And my heart has followed. So even on difficult days, when I'm exhausted and literally nothing is going the way it should, I can take a look around me and honestly say that there's nowhere else I'd rather be. Even when my good ideas get ignored and I'm facing frustrations and problems that are bigger than I've ever faced before, I am still happy to be where I am. Because I'm invested, not in a project, but in a people. And sometimes that investment looks like teaching violin lessons, or organizing a filming crew. Sometimes it looks like praying with someone who's having a hard day or laughing uproariously over bread and tea. Always, it's seeking a better, more effective, more meaningful way to be a good friend, a good partner, and a good sister in Christ.

I am learning

Cheers for culture and learning! Hip! Hip! Hooray!


*Besides translating when I was hopelessly confused, providing me with shelter and helping with documents, and occasionally pushing me to socialize when the spirit was willing but the flesh weak.


  1. Ahh this was such an inspiring read--this, all of this, is just so beautiful. (Also ridiculously courageous. I am in awe).
    Oddly enough, I've always wanted to do this--just go to another place, somewhere completely foreign, and become a part of it. All the grace that's needed in just understanding and being understood is just so cool.
    So, again: very inspiring. You're awesome.

    1. 'Grace' is really the key ingredient here. :) Sure, I needed a measure of courage and sheer determination to obey God and come here, but I wouldn't have made it if it hadn't been for the abundant grace shown to me by God and by everyone around me. Where would you go if you could choose?

  2. Such a lovely reflection, Janie! I enjoyed reading this. :) And your attitude is an inspiration - being a learner, valuing people over projects, admitting where you lack, pressing on when it gets hard, being available wherever God calls you. It encourages me to let God do His work in my life - I have so much to learn! Keep trusting Him! xx

    1. Hi Jessica! Thanks for the encouragement. Keep following after God. If we provide willing and obedient hearts, He can do all the rest.


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