Gift-Giving Etiquette in the global village

In 1987 we spent two weeks of cultural orientation living in an emptyhut in a Fulani village in Mali. Larry and Ann Vanderaa, with Christian Reformed World Missions, lived and worked on the other side of the village.

Our Fulani neighbors kindly brought us lunch every day—millet mush with sauce made from ground tree leaves. They did for us what all Fulani would want done for them when they visit another village.

There was too much millet in the bowl for us to finish. We wanted to be polite, so we did for them what we would have wanted done for us—in North America, if you give a neighbor a casserole or pie, they should thank you and later return the clean dish. So we transferred the leftover millet into a container, which we snuck to the Vanderaa’s hut at nighttime to feed to the chickens.

But in Fulani culture, what you are supposed to do is eat your fill of the gift food and promptly return the leftovers to show that you got enough. Eating all the food in the bowl is impolite—hinting that the portion was skimpy. We watched with dismay as each day more and larger bowls of millet were brought to our hut. The neighbors were following the Golden Rule, but it made us stressed instead of happy, as we feared what would happen to our Christian witness if they found out we gave their food to chickens.

Finally we learned enough language and culture to know to send back the leftovers.

Good Gifts Gone Awry

This story is one instance of the Golden Rule gone awry in a cross-cultural situation. With the increase in short-term mission trips and global communications, people of different cultures now interact all the time. We find ourselves in the tragic situation of thinking that we’re giving others bread without realizing that we’re actually giving a stone or a snake. Let’s take another look at Matthew 7:9-12:

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this [sums up] the law and the prophets (NRSV).

The problem is, we don’t know how to give good gifts in a cross-cultural situation.

George Ayittey describes another such case in his article “How Western Aid Helped Destroy Somalia”:

Food aid depressed grain prices, giving local farmers fewer incentives to farm. It became easier for them to trek to the refugee centers for their food rations. The young, armed with AK-47s, saw an opportunity. Relief supplies could be looted.

The consensus of those who have studied Somalia is that aid in the 1980s and 1990s did more harm than good.

In her study of a community of Bira people in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), professor Raija Warkentin found many examples of missionaries and North American churches giving gifts to Africans that had unintended harmful consequences.

Protestant church elders were given bicycles courtesy of an American donor. They were to be used to facilitate their evangelistic work. The bicycles enhanced their status in the villages. However, they also stimulated some discontent among church members. Two women complained that an elder had refused to lend his bicycle to them so they could transport food for a forthcoming evangelistic meeting. The women blamed the man for using the bicycle for private business rather than evangelistic work. . . .

Sometimes such donations caused jealousy among members of different missions as they compared incoming goods. Some of the church elders who had received bicycles heard that the Swedish Pentecostal mission in Bukavu gave each of its pastors a car. . . .

For Bira of the postcolonial era, the ultimate form of material wealth was a wooden or a concrete house with a tin roof. Such a commodity was primarily available to those who had been successful in gaining the sponsorship of a missionary. The wife of a Bira church elder told me that ownership of a house with a tin roof was a powerful motivating factor for a person to attempt to become a church elder. Church elders were not paid salaries, but each one was given a house (Begging as Resistance: Wealth and Christian Missionaries in Postcolonial Zaire).

In each of these cases, the donors or missionaries intended to give good gifts. They did not understand what would happen as a result of their gift.

Avoiding Stones and Snakes

So how should we seek to help our neighbors in today’s global village? I’d like to suggest three biblical principles we can keep in mind in any cross-cultural setting:

1. Instead of sharing your know-how, be a learner. It’s a tendency of fallen humanity to feel one’s own culture is superior to others. Pride can make us so certain we’re doing the right thing that we become blind to our mistakes. But God praises humility: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13).

The wise person of Proverbs always welcomes input from others. It is the fool who thinks he already knows everything and needs no correction. If we avoid prideful feelings of superiority and maintain a humble, teachable attitude, we will be able to learn in context how to give bread and not stones.

2. Instead of taking quick action, be careful what you do. In North America we approve of people who get things done, and we don’t like to “waste” time. But in a cross-cultural situation, it’s imperative to slow down and follow Ephesians 5:15: “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise.” We must remember that quickly giving a stone is a bigger waste of time and resources than slowly and carefully giving bread.

Professor Thomas Weiss, writing about cases where relief aid did harm, including Somalia, notes that private aid organizations are becoming more careful about intervention. He says, “The watchword now is: ‘Don’t just do something. Stand there and think.’”

3. Instead of believing problems can be easily fixed by giving money, appreciate the complexity of each situation and give your effort where needed. I’m uncomfortable with some fund-raising messages of Christian organizations, which make simplistic claims that your donation is all that’s needed to bring immediate results. Such slogans as “Just $10 will save the life of a child!” appeal to our pride but are deceptive. In truth, real, lasting change is hard work.

There are plenty of situations where prayer and efforts in advocacy—such as calling your elected representatives—are what is needed to make a difference. In 2003 the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee learned that farmers in Mali were losing millions of dollars because of depressed world cotton prices—and it was mainly U.S. policies that were the cause. This happened because agro-businesses received government subsidies to grow cotton, which they then put on the market at a price below what it cost them to produce. CRWRC shared this information with Christian Reformed churches, whose members contacted their government representatives.

The CRC’s Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action, along with CRWRC, took on one piece of the large effort of many groups and organizations working against the unfair cotton-trade policies. Against the objections of the farm lobby, President Bush and Congress agreed in 2006 to remove the subsidies.

Consider Proverbs 25:12: “A warning given by an experienced person to someone willing to listen is more valuable than gold rings or jewelry made of the finest gold” (Good News Bible). When we desire to “fix” a situation by giving money, let’s first stop and examine what would be a genuine long-term solution.

The modern world is complex. Unintended consequences happen every day to people who had the best of intentions. We shouldn’t take the Golden Rule and apply it according to our first impulse. Rather, let’s become learners. Let’s take the time to be careful and wise. May God continue to teach us how.

Web Q’s
  1. Have you ever gone on a mission trip? Tell the group about your experience.
  2. Discuss the complexities of working in a cross-cultural situation. What current events in the news bring this truth home?
  3. Discuss Mary’s three suggestions for working in a cross-cultural setting.
  4. How do you feel you can best contribute to our agencies that bring aid to other countries? Is it helpful to send money?

What, in this article, gives you hope?

About the Author

Mary Crickmore is the West Africa Team Leader for CRWRC.
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