Kearney, NE: Morris Publishing, 2006
Humble, wise and always good natured describe the author of this book, Ron Meyers, our senior missionary and field leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If you’re a missionary, a missionary candidate, or just interested in missions, I guarantee you will be entertained, inspired, and informed by this little self-published book consisting of 36 vignettes from the life of Ron and his wife Alice. Below is a sample of one of them,“Marital Counseling in Togboland.”
The rainy season sun was already hot, creating moisture laden convection currents and billowy thunder heads. We hurriedly loaded all of our worldly possessions on the aging diesel truck. We were anxious to reach the remote Badza Baya outpost before the onset of storms and darkness. We would soon be on our way to the land of the Togbo tribe remotely located in northwest Congo.
Darkness approaching and truck doors flapping, we chugged up the last hill leading to our destination, Badza-Baya. As we hustled the last piece of furniture into a shelter, the expected storm struck with fury. We were thankful for a roof over our heads.
Twelve hours later, with sunshine bathing our surroundings, we marveled at the breath-taking view from our porch. Instead of equatorial rain forest we saw distant horizons and felt the release of open space. We were on a rock strewn, lunar-like landscape underneath big skies. We decided it was time for our customary walk during the cool of the day. This time it would not only be to exercise our bodies after a tiring truck ride but to visit Baya, the little Togbo village about a mile down hill from our new home. To absorb the nuances of an environment that was strange to us we strolled leisurely, waving occasionally at villagers doing their morning chores in front of their sienna colored mud huts.
In Baya we saw a people who were different from the other tribes we had known–shorter of stature with finer features. It was easy to identify them by their tightly woven grass or straw hats with prominent conical peak. They inhabited an area just beyond the end of the world, about eighty miles from the nearest mail delivery point. Since we understood there was, on average, only one vehicle passing the station every two weeks, we sensed an acute need of a mail carrier … someone with a bike and legs that can meet the challenge of eighty miles of hills. Where would we find such a person? Our isolation from the outside world was a major concern to us because we had three daughters at a boarding school.
The next day a group of young men from Baya came to welcome us. Like the others we had seen in the village the day before, they were short and fine-boned–except for one who was well built on a tall frame. Ignoring his faded shirt and patch upon patch jeans we noticed his long muscular legs. Then when we learned from visiting with them that his family owned a bicycle we thought of our mail situation. We wondered, “Could he become our link with our three daughters at the boarding school? ”We offered to replace the bike tires and pay a certain sum per trip. He grinned and nodded, “ekoki” in agreement.
We also wanted to learn how to minister effectively to people whose culture differed from that of the forest people. Instead of teaching in high schools our new ministry would be training church leaders. Instead of missionaries and national teachers as co-workers we would be teamed up with the CongoleseSuperintendent of the Togbo churches.
During our first month among the Togbo, we participated in a “Big Sunday”, a group of about five churches gathered for a weekend together climaxing in a baptismal service. My first involvement was a baptismal service of 27 candidates. Since none of the other pastors present were licensed they asked me to take over. As the first person waded towards me I felt awed at my sacred responsibility. Having never done this before I also felt some trepidation. What if I make a blunder? I lowered the lady into water, not thinking to ask her to tilt her head with chin down.
Before the next candidate enters the stream, a horrified elder takes me aside advising me to ask the candidates to tilt the head forward to avoid choking. Meanwhile, someone else in the large crowd shouts, “Look out for the water snake over there!” I was learning.
Eager to become acquainted with the Togbo church leaders of the district, I scheduled a seminar with them. While teaching the group of about twenty preachers I referred to a young child by holding my hand at the height of the child, my palm facing the ground. I had learned of that way of gesturing while serving amongst the forest people. The District Superintendent stared at me in astonishment. Later, when I repeated the gesture, the leader grimaced and stood to correct me. “Brother Meyers, if you are talking about animals, you gesture like that. If you are referring to us Togbo people, your hand gesture must be outstretched at the height of the child and held at a vertical angle.” I was learning!
Because we asked Matthew to make frequent mail trips we had many opportunities for friendly visits with him. One day he approached us with trouble written all over his face instead of the usual broad smile when he would come to talk about his hunting exploits. He doffed his misshapen, locally made dried grass hat revealing his furrowed brow. He began, “My wife has a problem and I want you and your wife to come to our hut to discuss it.” I hesitated. A Congolese proverb says, “In a house where you don’t live, you can’t know what will bite you.” We were not concerned about bed bugs or rats. But what kind of marital squabble were we getting into?
The next morning, Alice and I amble slowly downhill to Matthew’s village. Like testing cold water with a toe before diving in, we were not eager to take the plunge. Matthew was in front of his mud and dried grass hut to greet us with his usual smile. He escorted us inside where the cooler air smelled acrid from aging cassava porridge. We were chagrined to see the young wife, Malia, in a somber corner, crouched and subdued looking. My jaw dropped at the sight of several matronly appearing ladies seated across from her, glaring at her. We begin with small talk, all the while wondering how the real issue could be broached in the formidable presence of Matthew’s mother and these aunts.
Finally, Matthew took the plunge and aired his grievances against his wife, emphasizing her lack of obedience. The matrons nodded their heads and clucked their tongues in enthusiastic agreement. Not surprisingly, his wife was cowed into silence.
At this point I wanted to be somewhere else … anywhere, but in this dank hut. My timid nature was telling me to retreat. However, I surprised myself by asking the clan’s female leadership to leave. To my relief, the dumbfounded ladies hesitated momentarily and then complied.
We discussed what it meant to be Christians and then talked about the husband-wife relationship. With his New Testament open, Matthew nodded with enthusiasm as I read instructions concerning the wife’s duties; fetching the water from the creek, hoeing the garden and in general being submissive to her husband. We talked over the importance of praying together and reading the Bible aloud. (The latter was crucial since, like the other women of the village, Malia was illiterate.) We also noted the verse, “do not let the sun go down on your wrath,” as an alternative to allowing a disagreement to fester indefinitely.
At the beginning of the conversation, Matthew frequently glanced sideways at his wife prodding her to say something. Instead she silently stared at the clay floor. He quit looking accusingly at her as he listened to another verse in the same passage, “… in the same way, the husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.”Was he becoming aware of the relevancy of the instruction to him as well? Afterwards, as Alice and I trudged up the hill towards our home, we wondered, “Will there be a change in the couple’s relationship? Will Matthew’s relationship continue to oppress Malia? Are the matrons resentful of the missionaries’ intrusion and for excluding them from the discussion? Is Matthew disappointed that we did not ‘straighten out’ his wife for not being submissive?” Having observed the wife’s stony silence throughout the session, we were apprehensive. We had probably failed in our attempt at cross-cultural marital counseling.
Malia came to visit us the next day. Since she had seemed so unresponsive during the session, her radiant smile surprised us. We ask, “How are things going at home? She grinned broadly, “Much better.”
During the following furlough, Alice and I, belatedly enrolled in a course in cross-cultural counseling. We learned that we had naively violated some basic principles. In that counseling session, we had excluded key members of Matthew’s clan in a clan-oriented society where clan leaders gather to deliberate and make decisions for its members. Our counseling attempt reflected the world view of the rugged American individualist rather than that of Black Africa.
If only we had taken the course before getting involved in counseling with people of another culture.
Sixteen years later we returned to the Togbo people to hold a seminar with pastors and lay leaders. Guess who came to see us–Matthew and several of his children bringing bowls of peanuts and eggs. With a proud grin he said, “All is well in our home.” Their marriage had weathered the storm. Even when we naively make mistakes in our effort to help, God transforms lives as the truths of the Scriptures are transmitted to people of different cultures.