In Kenya, public transportation is dominated by matatus – 15 passenger vans that follow routes around a city or between cities. The first time I visited Kenya, there was a law that matatus had to be painted a solid color, with a yellow stripe and the route stops on the side, and nothing else. Not anymore, though. Now they have snazzy paint jobs with all kinds of decals, pictures, and words.
One day, as we were driving down the highway, I looked up to see a matatu in front of us with a huge black and white portrait of Adolf Hitler on the back window. I was appalled. Do these people know who Hitler was or what his view of Africans was? Chapter 15 of Born a Crime answers my question with a “sort of” and “no.”
Common knowledge is often specific to a culture. This is why we feel like such idiots when we are learning to live in a new culture. People around us expect that, as adults, we already have certain common knowledge. Because it’s assumed we already know, no one tells us these things, and we blunder along, committing various cultural faux pas. Also, we bring our own common knowledge with us and judge the people around us for not knowing what “everybody knows.”
Trevor Noah explains the Hitler situation: “For many black South Africans, the story of the war was that there was someone called Hitler and he was the reason the Allies were losing the war. This Hitler was so powerful that at some point black people had to go help white people fight against him–and if the white man has to stoop to ask the black man for help fighting someone, that someone must be the toughest guy of all time.” Thus, black people in South Africa name their dogs and sons Hitler. And thus, you can get a portrait of Hitler decal for your matatu in Mombasa, Kenya.
When Noah’s group of friends was invited to perform at a Jewish school, they thought nothing of the fact that their best dancer was named Hitler. Everyone at the Jewish school assumed that they were cheering “Go Hitler” while someone was dancing because they were mocking Jewish people. And when they were kicked out, Noah and his friends assumed the Jewish people were offended by African dance because they hated black people.
Interacting with people who are different from us is part of life and a requirement of the Great Commission. Often people ask me about the benefits of living cross-culturally, and this is what I tell them. Experiencing life in other cultures makes it more natural for me to respond to people who are different from me with grace and understanding instead of judgment and offense. Experiencing other cultures in general gives me a context for seeing the image of God in other people specifically. Noah comes very close to saying this, in a secular way.
“In society, we do horrible things to one another because we don’t see the person it affects. We don’t see their face. We don’t see them as people. Which was the whole reason the hood was built in the first place, to keep the victims of apartheid out of sight and out of mind.”
People were segregated in order to ignore the personhood of the oppressed. Even after apartheid fell, there are ongoing consequences of this, demonstrated in privilege and opportunities, or lack thereof. Noah says, “People love to say, ‘Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.’ What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’”
He tells the story of his friend giving him a CD writer so that he could keep their pirated music business going. He had the ability, skills, and motivation, but without the equipment he could not have done it.
Where I come from, people believe that hard work and determination are all that’s needed for success. If someone isn’t successful, it’s most likely because they’re lazy. My own theory is that when everyone around you has the same privilege and opportunities, you are blind to the fact that your privilege and opportunities are not universal. People can tell you how it is for others, but it doesn’t become real to you until you develop the empathy that comes from knowing people who are different from you.
Join me in the comments! Have people in your host country responded to your faux pas with more judgment or grace? What stands out to you from this section of the reading? What are your favorite quotes?
P.S. Next week, we’ll finish up Born a Crime with chapters 17 and 18.
Beginning October 8th, we will be reading Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack by Alia Joy. We’ll be slowing our pace down so we can dig deep into this book over eight weeks in October and November.
Here’s a little about the author from Amazon.com: “Alia Joy is an author who believes the darkness is illuminated when we grasp each other’s hand & walk into the night together. She writes poignantly about her life with bipolar disorder as well as grief, faith, marriage, poverty, race, embodiment, and keeping fluent in the language of hope.
Sushi is her love language and she balances her cynical idealism with humor and awkward pauses. She lives in Central Oregon with her husband, her tiny Asian mother, her three kids, a dog, a bunny, and a bunch of chickens.”