Lauren is on the CultureBound staff as a trainer specializing in serving families and third culture kids.
The Languages of Culture: Pictures
LISTEN TO LAUREN’S STORY AND HEAR how the people in her new community viewed pictures, and how it helped her understand – and be understood – among the people of Tanzania.
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My family moved to Tanzania when I was 12 years old and during the first couple of years, we lived near a remote Tanzanian village. I would spend my days out in this village with the local Tanzanians and one family in particular kind of adopted me.
I became a daughter and a sister to my Tanzanian sister and Tanzanian Mama. They were the ones who taught me how to speak Swahili, cook Tanzanian food, make real chai over an open fire, and how to wash my clothes by hand — how to live like the Tanzanians lived. It got to the point where even the other locals in the village would say, “Oh, the American girl!” And this family would say, “No, no, she is Tanzanian.” So I became very integrated into the culture and into this community.
A couple of years after we lived there, we were asked to leave the country with very short notice. with only 10 days to leave and go back to the United States. We had very little time for goodbyes or for me, as a young teen, to really process what was going on. It was very abrupt and very hard.
Before we left, I decided to print off some pictures of myself and of these people in the village and my adopted Tanzanian family. I gave them all of these photographs before we left. I discovered later that the pictures that I gave to my Tanzanian family held more value than I even realized.
When we left, we expected that we were going to be returning to this village shortly. Well we did end up going back to Africa, but to a completely different part of that country that was a 10-hour bus ride from the place where we were originally, and where these people lived.
It was really hard to get back until about 10 years later. My husband and I went to Tanzania because I wanted him to see where I grew up and see this culture that had formed me and made me who I am and the person that he married. And that was the first time that I was able to see my Tanzanian family again.
Shortly after we arrived, and after all of the hugs and crying, they brought out these photographs that I had given them 10 years before. They said, “These photographs where the reminder that you were going to come back. You promised us by giving us these photographs that you would return. Now you’re back and we see that this was true.”
These pictures were not just photographs for them to put in their house or in a photo album or to keep in a drawer.
To them, the pictures were a symbol of a promise that I was going to come back to see them one day.
And 10 years later, that promise was fulfilled.
How these people viewed pictures is something that I would not have known if I hadn’t grown up and assimilated into this culture. It’s also something that I have encouraged people who go to visit Africa and Tanzania specifically to keep in mind, if they give photographs. They need to know that those photographs symbolize a promise.