culture stress (or i don’t want to be a missionary anymore)

Lest you believe I’m some sort of missionary superhero (not that there’s really any danger of this), I’d like to share with you confess to you that I have my bad days.  Days when I don’t want to be a missionary anymore. Days when I want to fly back to the United States, enjoy air conditioning, wait at traffic lights, and eat at McDonald’s.  Days like Friday.

I was just sitting down to the computer when the electricity went out.*  I started the generator for the first time since Sunday — the most recent of its breakdowns (I’d only got it running again Thursday) — and returned to the computer.  15 minutes later the generator was wheezing and coughing.  Another couple of minutes passed, and she quit.  And she wasn’t planning to start again.

That’s when, like a no-name Chinese generator, I broke down. Not in tears, mind you.  But still, I was broken down.  Angry, frustrated, and tired — and I wanted to shut my eyes and wake up in Dothan, Alabama… at the National Peanut Festival.  [There’s no place like home.  (Repeat x 3)]

Great!  Just what I needed… my generator to break.  Again.  One more thing to go on my list. [If you don’t like to hear venting, complaining, and whining, you probably should skip to the bottom; I feel that I rarely complain, but today there will be whining.]

  • We haven’t had water from the city since July. For a week’s worth of water, I have to borrow Carson’s truck and tank, fill the tank in town, and pump the water up to our holding tank… twice (about 4ish hours of work, depending on the line at the well and whether there’s electricity or not).  Or I can pay 20 times what we’ve got in our budget for water and have it delivered by a truck from town.
  • The water we do have is frustratingly difficult to use because our taps and faucets are full of red dirt and sand and don’t allow water to pass.  Seriously, we have three sinks in our house in which we can’t wash our hands.  I can fix them, but haven’t gotten around to it yet.  There are also leaks in the pipes in two of our walls.  Concrete walls.  Behind tiles.
  • Our electric oven doesn’t work. Not because it’s broken but because there’s something wrong with the wiring that causes the breaker to trip every time we turn it on.
  • We’re $20,800 in debt and struggling to pay for our furlough plane tickets. This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds in that $17,500  of this money came in the form of a bridge loan.  A very kind and anonymous donor loaned us the cash so we could buy a new truck.  We’re to return the money when we sell our old truck, which hasn’t happened yet and is proving somewhat difficult because of the rising dollar (or the falling shilling).  The other $3,300 is extra port fees charged us by the government of Tanzania.  If you’re thinking this means the government makes us pay for “storing” our truck in their port while we waited for them to allow us to have it, you’re right.  The slower they do their jobs, the more cash they get. We paid $3000 already, but were informed of this other $3,300 the day we picked the truck up.
  • Speaking of the truck, our brand new Toyota LandCruiser doesn’t have 4WD high. This is because the 4WD toggle switch was stolen at Toyota of Tanzania before I’d ever even seen the car.  Those buttons resale at well over $100 USD, but I can’t find one anywhere — and Toyota won’t take responsibility for what one of their employees did.  When I picked the truck up from them, they told me the empty space was there for a placeholder button, and that it did nothing.  My 4WD low works fine, but it’s not suitable for getting to some of the villages we visit.  So we haven’t been to a single village since we got the new truck.
  • We’ve been in Tanzania two years now — and we’re technically on-schedule.  But I can’t help but feel like we never get any work done, because we’re always fetching water, repairing plumbing, sitting in the dark, or just trying to live.  It just takes so much time to live here.
  • I didn’t tell you what happened just before the electricity went out on Friday.  Christie called from outside, and I opened the backdoor to find the puppies playing tug-of-war with our bed sheets, which they’d pulled from the clothesline. Our high-thread-count, nicer-than-we-can-afford, we-received-them-as-a-wedding-gift and only-have-two-sets bed sheets.  My wife was slightly troubled.  [It didn’t help that when the generator quit working an hour later, all the clothes in the washing machine were trapped inside, obviously wet.  Aah… the joys of an electric washing machine in a land of electricity rationing.]

When the generator quit — and I wanted to lie face down in the red dirt (where we’ve not yet planted grass) and beat my feet and fists in the mud while sobbing something about “my mommy”….  When the generator quit, these were all the things going through my mind.  I didn’t understand my feelings; I wasn’t sure if I was angry or sad, frustrated or afraid.

I called Carson and asked if I could charge my computer on his battery back-up system so I could do a little work.  Mostly I wanted to be able to say I accomplished at least one thing on Friday.  I packed the computer up and started walking to Carson’s house.  On the way I passed a young boy who asked if I would give him a ball.  I wanted to scream, “Does it look like I have a ball, you begging idiot?!”

Instead I told him politely that I didn’t have a ball.  He then pointed at the bottle of Coke Light in my bag and countered, “Well, then can I have a soda?  I see you have one of those.”

I told him I only had the one — and that it was for me to drink while I did some work on my computer.

As I walked away I realized it.  That I was experiencing culture stress.**  Under other circumstances I would have taken the bottle out of my bag, opened it for the boy, and given it to him.  But I was angry; the last thing I wanted was for one more person to ask me for a soccer ball or a soda, or for money or a job.  I wanted to leave Geita. Or at least lock myself in the (dark) house and refuse to answer the gate.

But I didn’t leave Geita.  And I didn’t lock myself in the house.  I went on to Carson’s house and told him I was having my first (and only, that I remember) culture stress event since moving to Tanzania.  Then I sat down at my computer (plugged in and charging) and got some work done.  I prayed while I worked, naming each and every one of these stresses and handing them over to God.***

After only a couple of hours, I felt fine.  And you’ll be happy to know I went on to accomplish as much on Friday afternoon as on any of my most productive days in Geita.

* Common occurrence as of late.  Electricity is being rationed.  For a couple of months it was as bad as 72 hours of electricity a week.  But lately it’s been much better — we’ve probably had closer to 100 hours per week, maybe more.  [To keep you from having to do the math yourself, there are 168 hours in a week.]

** Lots of people and books speak of culture shock — with no mention of culture stress.  I’m firmly in the camp, though, that we ought to see the pressures of living in another culture (and the effects of those pressures), as being on a continuum.  And so, we all experience culture stress.  But we reserve the term ‘culture shock’ for more extreme cases, and not these singular and shorter-term bouts with second cultures.
I suppose I am blessed to not have too many of these culture stress days.  In fact I don’t remember feeling quite like this any other time in my life except the one day in China when I punched a bus that had brushed my shoulder in an attempt to convince me to cross the street faster.  The echo of my fist against the hollow metal of the bus was deafening.  And it caused a horrible scene, as the bus driver stopped in the middle of a very busy road and got off the bus in order to yell at me for hitting his bus with my hand.  I was the only white person around, two heads taller than anyone else.  And they were all staring at me.  I swore I’d never act out in anger at a cultural situation again.

*** In light of recent discussions on prayer, I’ll be posting a very useful and practical prayer exercise a little later in the week.  For those of you who carry a great deal of stress with you, I think it will prove very helpful.


Filed under culture, living in africa, updates from geita

43 responses to “culture stress (or i don’t want to be a missionary anymore)

  1. I don’t know how this really feels. I won’t claim to. But I pray that God will be there for you.

    • thanks for the prayers, bernard. though i’m afraid this post has come across as if there are serious troubles or stress. i’m really very happy here. however, i would never turn away the offers for prayer.

  2. I am thankful you were able to move through your culture stress relatively quickly. Acknowledging your anger and frustration is the first step to help–really! Hiebert’s book *Anthropological Insights for Missionaries* does have a discussion of the difference between culture stress and culture shock. It should also be noted that many missionaries struggle more with these issues around the year two mark. I pray you will continue to deal with your culture stress in healthy ways! Blessings.

    • thanks, john. i also pray that we continue to deal with culture stress in healthy ways. i think our family does a pretty good job. i honestly think the bulk of our stress over the past year is from learning how to manage time and work with a baby around — not from tanzanian culture itself. of course, all the stresses to add up.

      but i think things are going really well. though furlough will be much appreciated later this year.

  3. Awwwwww! I feel terrible for bothering you with my headache and sleep situation. How did you deal with that?
    Anyway, I have prayed for you and hope you can deal with it better. There has to be a reason you are still in Tanzania. The Lord must still have work for you to do there. Just remember, you’re not alone-Paul, Peter, Barnabas, Timothy and others probably went through the same thing.

    • holly, i’m more than happy to pray for your headaches and sleep problems. and i have. it’s really not a bother at all. and thank you for praying for our family. and for the encouragement.

  4. randy morgan

    i gotta’ tell you, brett, i loved this post.

    first, i was glad to find out you’re not superman. as a church planter who has refused to play by “the rules” i want to quit a lot of days, too. your struggle makes me feel a little closer to you and a little better about myself. i get sick of all the gorgeous pictures of baylor, and descriptions of the the wonderful adventure you and christie are living. i love that your generator died. how great to hear that your faucets don’t work. “you begging idiot”…that’s priceless!

    after my initial glee, though, my empathy kicked in. i know you are doing what god called you to do with all your might. i wish i had and extra $20,800 laying around. i wish i knew someone who could intervene with the port authorities there. i wish i knew the president of toyota.

    but i can (and will) hold you up in prayer. i will cherish our virtual friendship. and i still envy your exciting life of adventure. god will sustain you.

    • MaeMae


      When you have grandchildren halfway across the world, remind me to tell them not to post any gorgeous pictures of them for you to see.

      Baylor’s MaeMae

      • randy morgan

        dear baylor’s maemae~

        please forgive me for offending you with my sad attempt at satirical humor. in fact, i love the pictures of baylor and i am confident she is enjoying a life she will one day cherish.

        as it happens, i have two small grandchildren halfway across the county and it’s too far away. i can’t imagine your situation.

        and i love and admire your son, by the way.

    • randy, i really appreciate you and your humor. it’s always a joy when you post comments. and you encourage me in my favorite way — by making fun of me. seriously.

      don’t worry too much about my mom. she would prefer that i post only pictures of baylor on the blog…

  5. Jane

    Wow, Brett. There are stories you tell and things you describe that I think would make me crazy. It is amazing to me that you have not felt this culture stress before now, and after all that….well I can see how you’d have the thoughts you described. I’m gonna pray about it all as I’m sure will many other readers and friends. I hope things improve and that whatever is going on, you and Christie have peace.

    • jane. they wouldn’t make you crazy. you lived in china. i remember.

      and i’ve certainly felt the stresses of living in this context before — i’ve just never become angry and had thoughts of giving up and going home. that’s different for me, and very very rarely happens.

      i’ve heard that in the u.s. we generally wake up in the morning at a stress level of 0-2 on a 10-point scale. and then, depending on our days and our jobs, it can escalate — and is somewhat difficult to reach a 10. i heard that the same individual waking up in rural africa starts at around a 5. i’m not sure if that’s true, but it makes sense to me. and stress levels reaching a 10 would be much more likely here.

      • Jane

        True about China but I was not doing nearly a much there as you are doing in Geita.

        As a rule, I do not stress very easily and when I do, I think I am more stressed about my stress than whatever caused it. But some of the things you have described I think would make me angry and frustrated. And I hate feeling that way.

  6. MaeMae

    I’m sorry you had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. I’m just glad it happened Friday and not Saturday when I caused your computer to disentegrate. Now you also know another reason why I never wanted dogs.

    I still can’t figure out how to comment on Christie’s blog. I love the pics of Baylor at the playground. What happened to her eye?

    I love you all and am praying for you constantly.

    • the day wasn’t so bad. just that 2 or 3 hours. and i’ll get back to you on my computer’s self-destruction. there are several things i don’t want to lose. as for christie’s blog, i don’t remember for sure but i kind of think you might have to have a google profile (meaning have gmail?). but i’m not sure.

      baylor was running on some concrete and got going too fast and fell down kind of on her face. that’s when she scratched up above her eye. the strange thing was that she ended up doing a complete somersault in the process. we both saw it, but we still can’t figure out how it was possible to scrape her eye on the ground and still roll all the way over onto her back. but she didn’t seem too hurt — cried for a couple of minutes.

  7. Your explanation of “culture stress” vs culture shock is a good one! And, your examples help us understand exactly what you mean.
    When in Ethiopia for just over one week, I experienced a great deal of culutre stress with the lack of electricity, slowness of govt. agenices, inability to push things forward in a reasonable time frame or get concrete answers when our son’s visa was rejected…..
    So, I can not imagine how challenging it would be to remain thankful living there full time! Much less in Tanzania.
    Thank you for sharing your struggles and for giving us a glimpse into your everyday lives. Our family is praying for you, Christie, Baylor and your team.

  8. JMF

    I am practical, Brett. I will pray for you, and I’ll take care of your toggle switch if you can handle the logistics of it (would have no idea how to get it to you). Email me if I can help you in that regard.

    • fife, thanks for your prayers. and i will with much gratitude take you up on the offer of helping us with the toggle switch. it’s “little” things like that that make living on a strict budget in africa difficult. because $140 is the equivalent of 70 african meals in town or 2 months electricity, etc. and it’s not like i can work a few extra hours and make the cash somewhere. [like at lipscomb when i’d make that kind of coin waiting tables on a weekend — or maybe even in one night if enough of my tables were drinkers…]

      i’ll continue working on the logistics of getting that button. and i’ll let you know when i find out something more. i’d love to have it sooner, but my real hope is just to have it by june — because i have some seminars i’m supposed to teach in a couple of villages (and some visitors coming from sponsoring congregations who will want to go out there). thanks a lot, fife. you’re a great guy, no matter what all your exes from college say.

  9. dude fair enough. you’re allowed to be stressed.

  10. Okay Brett…before I get to my main point, as the agnostic of the blog let me create a little satire, based upon previous fundgelical experiences. Then I’ll get serious….

    Okay…your electric oven is not owrking?!? Dude…that represents a serious lack of faith!! Have you prayed about it? The fact that it nor your Toyota Land Cruiser are having problems demonstrates a serious lack of faith dude. If you only pray harder, then you will get into God’s will. Here’s another question for your to consider when it comes to your Toyota Land Cruiser….is the reason why its not wokring due to unconfessed sin in your life? Is God punishing you for sin? I’d bet dude…that the real reason for ALL these problems is the fact that you or someone close to you has unconfessed sin in your life!! 😛

    Okay…seriously…as an agnostic I appreciate the fact that your take the missionary position off the pedestal. When I was a fundgelical I saw too many missionary positions being worshiped, just like pastors, worship leaders, Crusade directors, etc.. One of the ugly aspects about the church is that I think many people get worked up under the guise of “full time ministry” (What you mean a bank teller can’t serve God in Bank of America? What you mean a Honda Technician can’t serve God at Leesburg Honda?) and the church encourages them in a reckless and foolish fashion into difficult parts of the world.

    Before I lost my faith in God and all the pleasant expereinces I had with multiple Pharises…there was this sad situation that I saw unfold in front of me. One night when checking my Facebook I noticed a friend who accepted a missionary position in Burundi being on line. I asked her, “Hey how are you?” And all of a sudden it came out like a river. Cultural problmes, health difficulties , lonliness, concern about finances, etc.. I was taken back by all the difficulties going on. She wanted to quit…but she had only been there about 6/8 monthes… (something like that?) Anyhow at the fundegelical church I went to in the DC area which sponsored her I raised concerns about her. I knew her for several years and I was concerned for her health. So what happened when I raised concerns?

    1. How dare you subvert God’s will!!
    2. God’s in control…you need to have faith!!
    3. That can’t be the case…she’s doing what she always wanted to do.

    The lack of concern was frightening. And I think it shows (especially today looking back on it….) how fraudulent Christianity can be at times. There was no genuine love for this person…only the position she held. In the end she was just a person in a system, and I was surprised that people weren’t as concerned. Eventually she ended up quitting early. I told her not to take it personally…soemtimes things just don’t work out. Life is hard…

    But let me say that I appreciate your honesty in this blog post Brett. Christians in many cases have driven me from God and yet I appreciate the openess. It’s different from the “Praise God for having a kid/new job/prmotion/brother recover from a motorcycle wreck/new Toyota Hybrid” crap that I used to hear. All I heard was success stories. Christianity despite the denial by many Christians is infected with the prosperity gospel. All you can have is success but the fact that you are having a lot of difficulty I think is normal. Thanks for being open…I wish I could have encountered that more in the circles I once moved in.

    • eagle, i’m happy that i can take the missionary position off its pedestal for you. one of my greatest frustrations actually is this seemingly vast chasm between clergy and laity within christianity. we’re all (christians, that is) disciples, learners, followers.

      the prosperity gospel is very popular here in africa. it almost seems to be a caricature of some of the worst in american christianity. the prosperity gospel is bigger; status is even more important.

      faith is never as simple as many of us would like to make it. it’d be great if good things only happened to good people. and it’d be easy if God’s blessings were poured out only on those who acknowledged him. and if hard times never came to those called by his name. but it’s just not like that.

      • Brett & Eagle, I find your dialogue very honest and it encourages me. Early in my efforts to encourage people to do 3-column studies I taught an adult Bible class where we did 3-column studies of our favorite passages. Philippians 2 has long been one of my favorites, but I was blown away by an insight I gained from the chapter. The first section deals with Paul calling believers to have the humble servant attitude of Jesus, then in the last half of the chapter he talks about Epaphroditus. Here was a brother who was sent to Paul from the church in Philippi, but he became deathly ill. He recovered, but Paul felt it important to send him back home–earlier than the church had planned. Paul uses an odd word to describe this brother’s actions. It is usually translated as “risked his life” and actually was used of a gambler who staked his life as the wager. I wonder if Paul starts with the example of Jesus to show how he viewed Epaproditus. But he opened by calling them to:

        1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Phil 2:1-4)

        Rather than looking down on Epaphroditus for coming home early, Paul wanted them to view him as a hero. He wanted them to value him. It grieves me that Eagle’s church did not exhibit the attitude of Christ toward him or the sister who came home early from Burundi. I am glad you are showing Eagle something different. I am glad he has noted it, too.

  11. I 100% know how this feels! Great post!

  12. Wow. I feel sort of bad about writing a post about having to buy a new handbag. Perspective is good. Last week was full of bad news. The kind of fall to your knees and pray bad news. Maybe if I prayed that way for life’s minor frustrations I would know God’s peace on a more consistent basis.

    • yeah… but believe me, katdish. i’d much rather have the stresses i have here in geita than have to buy a new handbag. and i’m not joking. i think you might enjoy my next post (or the next next one); it’ll be on praying through those minor (and major) frustrations.

  13. Kate Connell

    i know, i know.

    and the really ironic thing is that if you could find a used 4wd switch in Kare Koo it would probably be the one stolen off your truck in the first place!

  14. Brett: i was having net trouble so didn’t get a chance to respond in a timely fashion. Your post is exactly the reason I believe being a missionary is one of the spiritual gifts mentioned in Eph.4: 11. I read this yesterday and was utterly flabbergasted at thinking of “me go through this? My wife go through this?” I don’t think so. i sincerely & honestly believe that it is one of the gifted leadership positions mentioned in the aforementioned passage. But I also think you have done remarkably well for having only one Missionary Stress moment. Bet you are looking forward to furlough. 🙂

  15. Pingback: meditative prayer: centering down | aliens and strangers

  16. Leah

    Thanks for honestly sharing your frustrations. My friend back home (in the U.S.) suggested that I read your blog partly b/c she’s heard me “complain, whine” on various occasions about my experiences here in Bolivia and she thought I’d be able to relate. And I do in a way, though I think my life on a daily basis is a bit easier than your family’s. I’m a pretty firm believer in culture stress and agree with your statement that it is on a kind of continuum. Look forward to reading more in the future.

  17. Gosh, I was just writing a post about how annoying tourists are in Florida and you are dealing with not having electricity..hmm..maybe I will put off that post for a later date. I’ll be praying for your sanity and complete electricity.

    • thanks for coming by the blog, heather. and for the comment. and i’d happily read a post on annoying tourists in florida. i think it ranks right up there with going without electricity. [i’m from south alabama, and grew up spending a lot of time in florida — not so much as a tourist…]

  18. Thanks for this post – not everyone understands the concept of ‘cultural stress’. They often think it’s only an initial thing when you arrive, and then you get used to it.
    Well, no…there’s a constant stress when you live in a different culture and I think we should not underestimate the effects.
    I can relate to the stuff you write as life in Nepal is similar, in several aspects 🙂 I’ll read your post on meditative prayer now! I’m sure I can learn from it.

    • thanks for writing, ruth. culture stress surely is a confusing thing. many would believe it only rears its head in the first 6 months of being in a new country. and lots of short-term trippers think they understand it because they went without air-conditioning and language skills for 10 days (though that’s what we call the honeymoon stage, isn’t it?).

      i was in nepal for a brief time in 2003, and really enjoyed my stay. of course, i know very little about the country and its culture. but it was a nice place to visit. how long do you intend to be there? thanks for coming by.

      • After a while you realize that the lack of airconditioning is really one of the minor issues, I think!
        I’ve been in Nepal for over a year now, and will stay another 2 years, probably. And longer, maybe…who knows.
        Definitely enjoying it and learning a lot on this journey!

        • yeah, a/c is really take it or leave it for me at this point. though i definitely won’t complain when i go back to the states to visit later this year….

          i loved nepal, and plan to go back at some point. but that’s probably a long, long way away from now.

  19. Pingback: missionary stress and 95º living rooms | aliens and strangers

  20. Karen

    James – not sure how long ago you wrote this so perhaps some of your probs. have been sorted but just to say a couple of things. Firstly if your oven came over from America it needs a step down converter because of the different electricity voltage (perhaps if you are going on furlough…?) secondly we have Toyota here in Kenya – perhaps a quick pop across the border may bring some joy for your vehicle? Thanks for your article – I have been here for about 15 years now and although I do still have seasons of wanting to run away things do get better. If you are at anytime near a YWAM base (Jinja, Kampala) they may have a book called Foreign to Familiar by Sarah Lanier – good read from someone in missions for many years comparing differences in culture ie work oriented vs relationship oriented (Western/African). Bless you and your family so much

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