Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Culture Bites

Every preacher that goes to the Local Preachers Convention in our District has to contribute a cow. Or it may be that each circuit must contribute three cows. Something like that. On top of that every preacher - whether going to the convention or not - must contribute x hundred rand. I don't have the exact details. (This refers to the Methodist Organisation of Preachers and not to the Methodist 'office' of Local Preachers. Most preachers belong to the organisation but not all.) All of this goes into providing catering for the weekend. You can be sure that this will be a feast of feasts and a party of parties. Now the Local Preachers Association (which is the name of the organisation) is almost completely made up of Black South Africans. White people and non-indigenous Black people don't tend to join the organisations.

For Black people this feast concept is normal and a cultural necessity. For those of us of another culture, it feels very wrong. Because we are expecting people who cannot afford a cow or x hundred rand to pay up regardless. Otherwise they will be rejected by the community - either officially, or just by being made to feel bad and to be told that they have no 'ubuntu'. But for us on the outside we wonder how we can expect a person to deprive their children of what might be necessities in order that a small group of people can indulge in something that we see as both celebration (good) and greed (bad). For us, we say - your priority is your family and children. The Black culture says your priority is the community. At the worst extreme, this is why starving people will contribute to Robert Mugabe's lavish birthday party. They exist for the community - which in this case is represented by Robert Mugabe.

At phase 1 college we agreed that we would contribute R10 each for everyone's birthday so that we could buy them a gift voucher. This works out at R100 altogether. I thought that was kind of cool. But now, apparently, R10 each is not enough. We need to buy something nice for the birthday person. We need R50 each. This was brought to the group for discussion. A certain group of vocal people made their plea. Most of us were quiet and just listened. For me, this is just the cow story on a lesser scale. There are people in our group who may not be receiving their stipends. There are those supporting families. We do not get paid an enormous amount every month, as you may imagine.

I asked for time to think, explaining that this was not how my culture worked and I wanted to try to understand. But the pressure is there to follow the community (ie the vocal leaders). Those who cannot afford it won't speak up. Maybe everyone can. I don't know. For me, R10 or R50 is neither here nor there. My husband is also working. I would like to be generous. But I feel coerced and I am afraid that others do too.

Some cultural differences bite deep and it is very hard to decide what is 'right' or 'better'. Should I defend the 'underdog'? Or should I give with grace that transcends the sense of being coerced?

At the end of the day - again my culture speaks, and I think wrongly. I will say that the underdog must speak up before I support him and I will follow the community pressure. iRight or iWrong, as they say?

1 comment:

Steven Jones said...

Hi Jen

As you know, I'm also struggling with this one. For me, culturally, the giving of a gift is a rather private affair between the giver and the recipient. When it comes to close friends and family who know me and have an understanding of my resources and practice when it comes to giving, I would sometimes ask them what they would like (e.g. birthdays, etc.), but other than that, I feel that the ball should be in the giver's court.

Having said that, I have no problem participating in what we English call a "whip-round" for a present, particularly in an office or club environment where this type of thing is frequently encountered. The amount involved is a fairly token amount from each person, and the idea is to give the person a few bucks (or a voucher) towards something they would like. However, the type of open discussion around the amount of the contribution made me feel somewhat uncomfortable, as though the recipients are now dictating the terms of the gift.

Like you, I'm still in two minds about this. To me the issue is also not around R10 or R50. I am however concerned that (a) there is a member of our group who is not receiving stipends at the moment, and therefore needs to conserve whatever resources they have in order to see them through during the months ahead, and (b) one would end up being the beneficiary of a "gift" from which such person has effectively been coerced into contributing towards. Personally, I feel that this thing has moved out of the realm of a gift, resembling something more of a savings club. Quite frankly, a card (or even a handshake or "group hug") for one's birthday would actually be just fine. I'd even have no objection to bringing a few munchies on the day.

My inclination is therefore not to participate. My problem is what impact such a stance would have on the group dynamics, particularly since we are gelling so well as a group at the moment.

Grace, or law? Keeping the peace, or standing up for one's own convictions. While on the one hand we can be so enriched by each other's cultures, on the other hand there are so many practices (like the way the pledge system is applied in some contexts, your post concerning the LPA contributions, etc.) that to me just seem so inconsistent with the principles of giving as contained in Scripture.

Not an easy one at all...