Photos, Turtle Soup, & Waving with Your Left Hand

DSC03783I will never forget the day when I walked through a Tanzanian village asking if I could take photos of the people, animals and homes. I had just arrived on the mission field and had not yet learned to speak the local language so I relied on the use of “Special English” and hand gestures. I would point to myself and then to the person or object and say “Photo?” At first I thought the people must just be shy or nervous because they would laugh and turn away. As I continued on, a rather large group of children began to accompany me and laugh whenever I asked my question. After a couple of hours of taking pictures and this routine of me asking and the people laughing, I returned home and told one of the Tanzanian workers of my experience. He laughed loudly and told me the reason that everyone was reacting that way was because the word “photo” in their tribal language means to pass gas. Just my luck! I had just introduced myself to the village of Mumba by asking every person, goat, and cow to join me in a communal breaking wind party.

I learned quickly that the cultural differences and lack of language had the potential to cause hurdles in building relationships with the people I had gone to serve. Over the months and years I began to adjust some of my “American” customs to match those of the Tanzanian’s.

DSC03747I learned that the boys who would come to my door to sell turtles were not looking for a new home for a beloved pet, but they thought we would enjoy some turtle soup.

I learned that the parts of the chicken that we throw away in America are a favorite dish to my Tanzanian friends.

I learned the best way to offend a Tanzanian is to wave at them with my left hand.

I learned that showing my knees would cause a scandal.

I learned that Tanzanian Time and American Time run at completely different speeds.

I learned that driving on the “right” side of the road in Tanzania will get you into a lot of trouble.

I learned that if your hands are both full, that the top of your head it a great place to carry objects.

I learned that arguing about the price of an object is not only acceptable but expected. (Likewise, I learned that it is often frowned upon in America to do this.)

I learned that when your vehicle is listed as a 5 passenger car that this is only a suggestion and the car can actually hold 7 adults, 3 infants, 2 chickens and a large bag of rice. That’s not to mention the 8 guys in the bed of the truck too.

I learned that you are not necessarily in trouble when you get pulled over by the cops in Tanzania. They may just want to chat or see if you have a Coke to share with them. However, if they do accuse you of something, I also learned that having my kids speak to them in Swahili usually got us out of any tickets.

DSC04284The world is made up of hundreds of different cultures which in turn each have their own unique set of customs, languages and taboos. With international travel becoming so much more accessible and affordable, it is likely that at some point we will all find ourselves immersed in a foreign setting and asking the natives to “photo” with us. Likewise when we return from living overseas, we often bring with us some customs that we have acquired that might not be considered normal in our home culture. When I returned to America these new customs often brought about awkward moments such as speaking “Special English” to anyone with an African heritage, stopping to let my child use a bush as a bathroom instead of looking for a rest stop, and asking people if their water is clean enough to drink. These moments and cultural lessons are a piece of every missionary and international traveler’s life.

DSC03806However for the entire Body of Christ, even those who do not set foot in another country, there is still another culture that we are all a part of and should reflect in our actions: The culture of Christ our Savior. While being respectful of the multiple cultures that we come in contact with is important, the culture of Christ should take precedence over all others. This culture should be so engrained in us that there is no mistaking where our true origins are.

Be saturated in the culture of Christ to the point where it is impossible to act without Him being visible.

Becca Zuber, the author of this week’s post, was a missionary in Tanzania for 5 years and now works at Grace Bible College. She has been the Assistant Registrar, but in January will be transitioning to being the Graduate Studies Specialist.  She enjoys spending time with her kids, traveling both stateside and internationally, and creating beautiful things (art, crafts, home remodeling). Becca has a beautiful heart for the Lord and serves him no matter where she is at. If you would like to learn more about Grace Ministries International, please visit


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