Cross-Cultural Communication

What difficulties in communication do cross-cultural workers face? How can these best be addressed in various settings?

Material Things in the Context of Relationships in the Non-Western World, Especially Africa.

WCIU Journal: Cross-Cultural Communications Topic

September 24, 2018

by Jim Harries

Western thinking, shaped by years of compulsory education dominated by “Western dualism,” is preconditioned to view material reality as superior to spiritual, secondary understandings. Globalized education carries this materialistic approach far beyond the geographical boundaries of European peoples and their descendants’ “homelands” (i.e. North and South America, Australia, and so on). This thinking explains the nature of physical reality following “laws” of chemistry, physics, geography, maths, and to a lesser extent biology, history, physical education, business studies, and so on.

The acceptability of infiltration of these concepts by individuals and communal societies does, however, differ according to levels of receptivity by the peoples concerned. Western societies that operate according to deeply ingrained dualism, acquired over generations of re-affirmation, can produce young people highly attuned to notions of physical materiality. But not all societies are as conducive to such indoctrination. In many parts of Africa, children who are born into and guided by contexts that function without a prominent grasp of physical materiality, who are then taught physical materiality in school using an unfamiliar language, lag in this respect. Despite decades in school, their grasp of physical reality may be of limited functionality.

Western readers, targeted by this piece (hence it is in English), may be wondering; what is the alternative to “physical materiality”? To explicate this I want to draw predominantly on the first chapter of John Barclay’s recent treatise on the teachings of Apostle Paul (Barclay 2017, 1-65), which in turn draws overtly on Marcel Mauss (1967), talking about gifts and gift giving. The terminology of “gift” derived from Mauss’ work should not deceive us into thinking that what is being looked at is anything less than the totality of human life (Mauss 1967). Mauss presents a radically extra-modern approach to the nature of reality. His discovery has had enormous impact, and continues to be deeply influential in many circles (https://press.princeton.edu/titles/8038.html).

Mauss recognized that before the advent of “modern” financial accounting systems, traditional societies already had a functional, if in some ways perhaps less “efficient,” system in place. That is the system of interpersonal “gift exchange.” In this system, at least in parts of Africa familiar to this author, everything is processed through people. That is, the consequentiality of everything a person meets with and engages with in life, is perceived as originating either with himself or with other people (Mauss 1967; see also Harries 2007, 244-45). An individual in a traditional society constantly engages with others: absent or present, living, dead, or even not-yet-born, directly, and through things. Those relationships are important, foundational, and are the very stuff of what it is to be human. So-called “material things” are just a part of these interpersonal relationships.

Human concern for one’s standing in relation to others is the primordial factor that motivates much human behavior. In traditional views, the material and physical are a part of relations between people, as well as the medium of exchange in preserving these relationships. My hand shaking yours is not a meeting of two damp warm surfaces, but a profound interpersonal exchange. My voice is not a vibration of waves, but a reaching out of me as person to another. The thunder storm brewing is not composed of electrical forces in the stratosphere, but a shared feeling of awe, wariness, and fear. The flower a man gives his wife is not a thing made of carbon and other elements, but a sign of appreciation emerging from his being. A bed is not a structure made of wood, but a convenient base for repose on which to meet one’s beloved, or lie dreaming. Dreaming of what?—other people and related things.

A person has needs and depends on others for the satisfaction of those needs. Those needs are comprehensive. I could list some: food, water, companionship, and so on. Rather misleadingly, I could even endeavor to put them into a hierarchy, as did Maslow (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs). Frankly I’d rather suggest that a person seeks for all needs to be met simultaneously. All needs, as positivists reckoned, are met physically, by physical human presence, by sound waves meeting our ears, by carbon entering our mouths. Yet in traditional peoples’ understanding, none of those needs are confined to the physical. Even food is provided by someone through a certain motivation. That person and motivation are no less important, and in fact inseparable from, any biological and chemical “stuff” of whatever one is receiving.

My reader will note that they are able to understand what I write. Western dualistic people are not so removed from “traditional” realities as to be totally insensitive to them. They are removed from them only in so far as they have been indoctrinated by a pragmatic “dualism.”

Social life begins, Mauss tells us, as a result of exchanges, which he considers to be of “gifts.” They are gifts because they are always, in some ways at least, voluntary. Gifts set up obligations for return. To use Barclay’s term, except for in modern times amongst modern people, all gifts are circular (Barclay 2017, 52). Even what might be considered non-voluntary “gifts”—such as rape, theft, murder, wrestling, fighting (recognized anomalies)—set up expectations of return. Whether the gift be a kiss, a kind word, public praise or acclamation, a piece of bread, an affirming wink, a new pair of shoes, an employment agreement, all are of the same basic essence, an essence that we are here calling gift. It is in this sense that the “material” (as known in the West) is exchangeable with, and therefore fundamentally “created by,” what the West would consider “non-physical.” This can be as simple as the money a student pays in order to have the words, “he has received his baccalaureate,” declared over him one day at a graduation ceremony. It can be a wife cooking for her husband in anticipation of his faithfulness to her, and so on. The physical/material can in this system always be measured by the so-called “spiritual” or personal. In fact, the material is in many “traditional” societies, not considered a distinct category at all; it is simply a part of the “inter-human.”

The relative absence of a physical/material accounting system in Africa—the belief, in other words, that the spiritual generates the material—is often seen by Westerners as problematic. Stated in that way, Westerners might be reminded of the “folly” of alchemy (http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/03/15/good_as_gold/). However, as in the case of alchemists, whom scientists have more recently credited with important discoveries, it would be a misleading assessment to label as folly the concept that the spiritual generates the material. Plenty of cases of interdependency between “spiritual” and “material” are recognized in the West: the man whose performance at work deteriorates as a result of tensions in his marriage; the “mystery” of free choice (Ekstrom 2003); exchanges of physical items to generate or maintain friendship; companionship; sexual relations. All these demonstrate people’s concern to maintain harmony in relationships. The difference in the West is that the relationships are not considered to be the controlling, dominant reality. In the physics lab, atoms and their constituent parts are considered foundational. The discipline of economics makes declarations on the basis of simplifications considered pragmatic. The above two simplifications, and others related to them, are the innovations that have brought about “modern” thinking and the wealth and power of the West. The key here is to recognize them as contingent inventions with limited functionality. The recent unforeseen (in many circles) global rise in the prominence of “religions” demonstrates the limitations of the modern dream that they represent.

Outside of modernity, and in fact also inside of modernity beyond the boundaries of a certain utopian myth, people are troubled. Endless things trouble people, evoking emotions, feelings, passions, anger, depression, loneliness, fear, insight, expectation, and more. People are multifaceted complex beings. Correspondingly, they all have high expectations of others. This results in gift exchange, in which everyone is always creditor and debtor to everyone else, with vast degrees of complexity. Despite complexity, certain patterns emerge—indebtedness is associated with misfortune. Being in a position of credit is associated with prosperity. These patterns provoke attention to gift exchange in the interest of oneself and one’s people. The concern that “indebtedness” brings misfortune is the binding glue of society that maintains inter-human collegiality (Barclay 2017, 63).

“Giving” becomes the solution to misfortune. It is on this basis that prosperity gospel pastors encourage their members to “sow seeds.” This is how Mauss interpreted the apparently senseless potlatches of Melanesian and Northwest American Indians and other people. In these ceremonies people distribute gifts lavishly and sometimes wantonly destroy property as a means of “giving” beyond what they could expect to receive in return (Mauss 1967). This is the basis of animal sacrifice for sin (i.e. indebtedness). This is why we endeavor to smile at people we meet in the workplace.

The above has pernicious side effects. If having a credit in gift giving brings good fortune, and debit misfortune, then someone experiencing fortune is happy to know they are OK, but someone going through misfortune knows that, somewhere, they have a debt. That debt can manifest in the form of a bad-wind. (This a more accurate translation of the Greek term in the New Testament often translated as “evil spirit” [Harries 2007, 130, footnote 393].) Or the sense of debt may lead one to an assumption that someone is harboring ill feelings, such as of envy, otherwise known as witchcraft. The achievement of prosperity then becomes a battle with these two: a countering of witchcraft, and a removal of “bad winds.” Preoccupation with these goes in hand with “godless living.” It brings a condition of constant struggle based on “guesswork” as to what is hurting where and when. The assumption is that every misfortune has a human cause—if only one could know what it is. Next a person must engage in the process of rectification or pay-off. True godliness brings resolution of this complexity. (See 1 Timothy 6:6-11—“godliness with contentment is great gain.”) True godliness is an outcome of, i.e. an accurate perceiving of, the true nature of our origins, stripe, and destination as people.

Faith in God, as depicted through the pages of the Christian Scripture, is an introduction to a means of escape from the above kinds of constant inter-human struggles and conflicts. God is the one we invest into through relationships to one another, a little like a pooling of savings. Failure to understand God as over and above the complexity of inter-humanity, is the true source of our misfortune. I can illustrate this by looking at church leaders in African society. “Dog eats dog” seems long to have been the rule in Africa (as elsewhere). The coming of the Gospel has enabled people to overcome this. Recognition given to a person as a servant of the high God has clearly and graphically enabled many such servants to emerge to prominence from the homogenous crowd of humanity. Some African pastors have become incredibly wealthy. This is seen as a graphic sign that God’s grace is working in the hearts of church goers, replacing fear of witchcraft and possession by “bad winds,” with grace, forgiveness, love, hope, and truth. (There are various reasons why the generosity of believers can become focused too narrowly onto a few “pastors” who become very wealthy. Explaining this goes beyond the bounds of this piece.)

The issue, it seems to me, that the world remains “stuck” on at the moment, is the very slanted sharing of notions of dualistically-rooted physical materiality. As mentioned above, such has been a means to producing the current wealth and global prominence of the West. Passing that on has proven to be difficult. Forcing African school children to spend (on average perhaps) five hours per day in school for twelve years of their youth, has not cut the mustard. Some of the reasons for this have already been given above. Others ought also to be glaring: perception of dualism originates in recognition of God; human motivation comes from the heart, not from the head (“head knowledge”); telling a child one thing in a foreign language, while he sees another enacted constantly in front of him in a familiar tongue, does not help him enough. This results in a lack of “progress” (materially) in the non-Western world where a sufficient number of people have not been able to absorb the physical concepts that produce wealth.

The “myth” of science grew out of dualism. I suggest that what science has enabled has not been because of creating something, but of finding something. That “something” is a profound faith in God’s orderliness and reasonableness. Re-finding it around the world has more to do with learning faith in God than with indoctrination using Western educational structures. Credit to God, and debit forgiven by God through the death of his son Jesus Christ, are the helpful foundations that can bring an end to the otherwise endless inter-human struggles that Mauss labelled as “gift exchange.” Communicating faith requires the use of indigenous languages, not some foreign formula in indecipherable tongues. This in turn requires profound commitment to Christ. When theological truths are able to germinate, sprout, and grow, the result may be the spreading of the benefits of Western life (assuming for the moment that they are benefits).

I make two closing comments. Many Westerners dislike the “prosperity gospel” that is considered to be widespread in Africa. Yet for those African people practicing it, the privilege of giving brings with it, a bit like a potlatch, promise of blessing. The benefit to the receiver of the tithes and “sown seeds” is seen to arise from the ability to disregard attacks by envious people (i.e. witches). This can demonstrate a profound faith in God.

The notion that true prosperity comes through inter-human gift exchange is very widespread. In common parlance this means, in order to prosper, “do good to others.” Christians who replace this with “serve God” will be able to avoid traps, such as the implication that someone who suffers has obviously been mean or ungenerous.


Barclay, John M.G. 2017. Paul and the Gift. Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns.

Ekstrom, L, 2003. “Free Will, Chance, and Mystery.” Philosophical Studies 113: 153-80.

Harries, Jim. 2007. “‘Pragmatic Theory Applied to Christian Mission in Africa: With Special Reference to Luo Responses to ‘Bad’ in Gem, Kenya.” PhD diss., University of Birmingham. In http://etheses.bham.ac.uk/15/, accessed January 2, 2010.

Koresbergen-Kamps, Johanneke. 2014. Dreams and Nightmares of Modernity: Accusations and Testimonies of Satanism in Zambia. In In Search of Health and Wealth: The Prosperity Gospel in African, Reformed Perspective, edited Hermen Kroesbergen, 97-109. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Mauss, Marcel. 1967. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Translation. Trans. Ian Cunnison. New York: W.W. Norton. http://goodmachine.org/PDF/mauss_gift.pdf, accessed July 20, 2012.

Jim Harries (b. 1964) has engaged in detailed research into inter-cultural communication between the West and Africa since 1988. He has a PhD in Theology (University of Birmingham, UK). Jim’s home, located in a Kenyan village, functions in African languages, as does his practice of Bible teaching, which is his main local ministry. Jim has published seven books and numerous articles. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission ( http://www.vulnerablemission.org ).

Jim Harries (b. 1964) has engaged in detailed research into inter-cultural communication between the West and Africa since 1988. He has a PhD in Theology (University of Birmingham, UK). Jim’s home, located in a Kenyan village, functions in African languages, as does his practice of Bible teaching, which is his main local ministry. Jim has published seven books and numerous articles. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission (http://www.vulnerablemission.org).