Another Way of Seeing God
Another Way of Seeing God
Another Way of Seeing God
by Linda Unger
originally printed in Maryknoll Magazine (November 1999)

Cultural awareness offers new ways of viewing relationships, both human and transcendent

A Latin American journalist had enthusiastically approached the Maryknoll Institute of African Studies in Nairobi, Kenya. She'd been living in the country for some time and wanted to understand the local culture. The institute promised rigorous studies in short, intense courses and a cultural plunge. But it soon became clear the student was uncomfortable. She refused to eat with the other students and African research assistants or to travel in the matatus, or minibuses, that shuttle the local people from home to job and back again. One day she showed up for class wearing tight blue jeans and a colorful head scarf instead of the modest dress suggested to avoid calling attention to oneself as a foreigner. She finished the first of three courses, but never returned.

"She wanted to remain in her own protective environment. She seemed to have a problem relating to the Africans as equals," says Maryknoll Father Michael Kirwen, director of the program. "Foreigners are always liminal figures outside their own culture. But it is possible to grow in understanding of another culture if one does intense systematic studies of the host culture."

Kirwen founded the Maryknoll Institute of African Studies in 1989 to promote understanding of African culture. Students are men and women, Africans and non-Africans, clergy, religious and development agency personnel. Through rigorous graduate-level studies, field research and immersion in the culture – that is, the customs, habits, beliefs, art, morals and other aspects that make up African life – students begin to identify and leave behind their own prejudices. African field assistants organize and facilitate the required field research -- for every hour of class a student does one hour of professional-quality field research.

"It's more than mining information," Kirwen says. "It's about personalizing information and being challenged by the other ethnic group." He asserts that in three months, students can come to the point where they begin to appropriate an African mindset. In the process they discover an alternative way of seeing human relationships, the cosmos and God, the transcendent.

Kirwen, a missioner in Kenya and Tanzania for 44 years, has a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies. He says the method used by the institute, which is affiliated with St. Mary's University in Winona, Minnesota and Tangaza College, Nairobi,Kenya, is not limited to African cultures, but is applicable as well in a variety of cultures, and in the multicultural society of the United States because it teaches culture in a way similar to the way languages are taught. "About 90 percent of spoken conversations use only 60 or 70 words. Likewise, the 'grammar' of all cultures consists of some 15 themes," says the missioner from Jackson, Michigan. By identifying and studying cultural themes like ancestors, the nature of evil, family structures and marriage, one begins to understand the host culture from the perspective of an insider.

The students are challenged to grow in what Kirwen identifies as three "rites of passage": first, learning to work on an equal basis with an African peer; second, conversion to, or appropriation of, the African perspective; and third, articulation of one's discoveries in a research paper. The Latin American journalist got stuck in the first rite of passage. This step is important not only for Americans and Europeans, but for Africans of different ethnic groups as well. "We tend to associate with people of our own groups," says Denis Odinga, a Kenyan who is the Administrative Assistant/Registrar of the institute. "If I work with an African field assistant who is from another tribe, that for me is a rite of passage."

The second stage, conversion to the perspective of the other culture, is what "makes or breaks the student," says Kirwen. "It's not clear how or when this happens, but during their studies, students are converted to an African viewpoint, to the point that it affects them emotionally and spiritually." That is true both of African students, who make up 45 percent of the student body, and non-African students. Kirwen recalls an Eritrean seminarian who spent the first week of class with his arms crossed and his notebook closed. He considered the course on African cultures a waste of time. "Somewhere in that week," says Kirwen, "it dawned on him that he was learning about himself (how he viewed reality). And he said, "Hey, this is for real! This is me!" And he went on to finish three courses."

Finally, students articulate their discoveries in a research paper. "Students make the move from powerful experience in another culture to the transmission of clear ideas about it," says Kirwen. Then, he asserts, the students will understand that the culture is more than masks and dances. They will see that a culture covers all aspects of life, and that in opening themselves to the another's culture, they broaden their own universe.

Visit the Maryknoll Institute of African Studies website

Mike's Biography             Mike's Reflections

A Participant's Reflections on the MIAS Experience

Maryknollers in Nairobi, Kenya


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