Thanks, Sister (and Elder) Langford (CES missionaries in Guyana) for letting me share your post.
Our friend, Ron, asked us what cultural differences got in the way of our missionary work. There are many cultural differences and they stopped getting in the way as we learned what they were and adjusted our attitude.
This is an English speaking mission, but – they don’t speak the English we are used to. They pronounce words differently (vege-tah-ble, define-eyet-ly, cha-rack-ter traits, byes for boys), they use different expressions (walk with a lunch, collect the pen from he) and their use of pronouns is maddening (they don’t use him, her, our – they use he, she, we. (We brought she with we.). And they don’t use the past tense.
Our humor goes right over their heads and many times, in the classroom, I will try to use an example or an expression and they don’t get it. We decided over a year ago that we don’t belong in the classroom with the kids. Even the lesson manual has things that are incomprehensible to the Guyanese. There was a picture of a bicycle with training wheels. No Guyanese child has a bicycle. A bicycle is a luxury that adults have. It is a major form of transportation.
Time was very hard to get used to. A church activity will be announced to start at 3 pm and it doesn’t start until 5 or 6 or 7. We couldn’t figure that out, until we realized how travel impacts the people. If they have to do any preparing for the activity, decorating, cooking, rehearsing, they have to do it before the event on the day of the event. It costs too much money to take transportation to the church building more than once. This has led to a mentality of we’ll get there when we get there and we’ll start when we are ready. The branch presidents are finally getting sacrament meeting started within 5 minutes of the time. That is a major achievement.
They can’t seem to get home teaching and visiting teaching going. Transportation is one of the hindrances. The people are very poor. They have to use public transportation for everything. (Usually, our car is the only car parked in front of the church) They work long hours for very little money. Building relationships and friendships can be tricky. In Bush Lot Branch, everyone in town knows or is related to everyone else. Relationships are built in. In Garden Park Branch, people don’t know each other and have to make friends at church. Sometimes, the friendships don’t come. We have gone through a year of massive numbers of baptisms. They come in to the church faster than they can be absorbed. The branch leadership is changed often. All of this works against fellowshipping. These new Saints have trouble with hurt feelings and pride. They have trouble with accepting leadership and leadership changes. When they are offended, they leave and then we have to try to get them back. Our job is to train teachers how to teach and to get the young people into classes where they can learn the doctrine and principles of the gospel. We are hoping that we can have a generation of young people who will be able to lead the church without offense.
There are great cultural differences in the people. There are three cultures: East Indians who have either Moslem or Hindu backgrounds and an indentured servant history, negroes who have a background of slavery and who gather to various Christian churches, and Amerindians who have come in from the jungle and flock to the LDS church. There is a prejudice among them that is similar to the prejudice we experienced in the US before Martin Luther King. We are working very hard to promote unity among the saints.
We are competing with the school system here, the way early morning classes compete with athletics and band in the US. Right now, attendance at seminary has dropped. The CXC exams are looming. Everything depends on passing CXC in different subjects. The younger kids are competing for places in secondary schools. The private schools have scholarships for really high scores. The secondary students take the exam at 16. Passing the exam sends them out into the world to get a job or to the University of Guyana. Not passing the exam means staying in school for another year and hoping to pass the next year or getting a menial job. The problem for us is, the older kids begin studying for the exams early. Many take “extra lessons” before school and after school. The older kids who are studying don’t put seminary as a priority. The younger kids are also affected by exams. Their teachers put all of their time and energy into the kids who are writing the exams, so the younger kids are given double assignments before the exams so that they won’t miss anything because their teachers are occupied with the exam takers. They don’t come to seminary because they have double homework.
The Guyanese people are very polite. If you call on them at home, they will invite you in. You take off your shoes and they seat you on their best chairs. They want to give you refreshments and knowing that we can’t eat their food or drink their fruit punches, they offer a glass of soda pop. They will tell you what they think you want to hear. If you ask them to come to seminary or institute, they respond that they will “defineyetly “be there, however, they don’t come. Responsibility is a problem. Some of our teachers have not shown up for class. They have had good excuses, but they didn’t call anyone and left the students standing outside a locked gate. With transportation as expensive as it is, we get a little vexed (another Guyanese word) about it. They have discovered that we are here to help and can call us even in the middle of the night and we will help. They are so polite, they don’t want us vexed and the problem is beginning to resolve itself.
Have things changed since we have been here? Probably, not much, but we have changed. We are more flexible, tolerant and have changed our expectations. We hope that is what the Lord wanted when he sent us here. The first and most important convert to the church is yourself. Everyone, absolutely everyone, should have this experience at some time in their lives. Thanks, Ron, for giving us the opportunity to think about it.