American teens in rural Africa, Julia has been an unexpected joyful
presence. She takes school and all its idiosyncrasies in stride. She
thinks spending a Friday evening in Knitting Club with a dozen girls
is fun. She thrives on the camaraderie and exercise of the girls'
football team. She still welcomes her life-long Ugandan friends on
Saturdays and giggles in games. She's responsible and kind and lovely
and smart. And she's turning 12 this week, stepping closer to being a
woman in a place where it is not easy to do so.
Like probably most American 12 year olds, she wants to invite some
friends from school to celebrate her birthday. Unlike most, however,
she does so in a place where birthdays are a foreign concept, where
being friends with an outsider carries the risk of ostracism, and
where singling out any handful of girls will lead to jealous
repercussions from the others. So we thought we had hit on a workable
solution: provide dinner for the entire girls' football team after
practice on Friday. It will also be Acacia's last practice before she
moves. The team is already a selected group of 21 girls and includes
the handful she most wants to have over. It seemed to be a treat for
these girls who have worked hard to become a team, a boost to Miss
Ashley the coach, and fun for Julia. Repeatedly when we study the
idea of "friendship" here, it includes sharing food and visiting each
others' homes. So we planned.
But then we ran into the wall of culture. Some of the teachers come
from very strict post-British boarding school culture in which the
frivolity of a special event is seen as dangerous to the seriousness
of school, and resist any special privilege accruing to the boys'
football team let alone the girls. Others suspect that any student
who visits a missionary house will take on airs of superiority that
make trouble at school. Others insist that fairness demands that no
student do anything that all are not doing. So we were told, no, it
would not be OK.
Last night at dinner, we were going around the table doing "highs and
lows" of the day, and the normally cheerful Julia sadly mumbled her
low was that she could not invite her team for her birthday. Sigh.
It has left me really struggling. How much do we ask our kids to
follow the apostle Paul's prescriptions on culture, that we do nothing
that will cause our brother to stumble, that we "refrain from meat" if
it causes misunderstanding, even if that puts a damper on a 12th
birthday? Or do we examine this whole idea of "fairness" and push
back against it? I admit I am really confused.
As humans, it seems our relationships are inherently unfair, if
fairness is defined as being the same to all. We leave to cleave. We
take more responsibility for our own children than others. When 8 CSB
A -level graduates qualified for University, missionaries were only
able to sponsor three. We are limited, but I don't think that means
we should not have sponsored any at all. Only God can be infinitely
intimate. For the rest of us, what we give to one means less for
another. And in this culture in particular, where we are perceived as
the ones with the resources, if we enter relationship with anyone,
there are sure to be others who are irritated about it. And I can't
completely blame them. Yes, there is sin involved in jealousy, a holy
person would be happy for the goodness that accrues to their
neighbor. But there is also good reason for closely monitoring
anything that smacks of favoritism, in a culture where the politics of
all relationship from polygamous marriage up to the presidency are
tainted by nepotism and corruption.
As always, we cry for wisdom! To be fair in giving equal
opportunity. To be completely just in the assignment of grades and
the offering of medical care. But to also enter the risky mess of
relationship which requires moving closer to some individuals and not
to all. To handle the repercussions with grace for the disgruntled.
To resist the temptation to become a walled off institutional concept
rather than a flesh and blood human neighbor. And to lead our kids in
doing the same.