Over four years ago, soon after joining OM, I headed to the beautiful island country of Madagascar for six months. I fell in love with the rice fields, the abundance of fruit and vegetables, the markets, the friendly people.
Every day I walked around the area where I lived with camera in hand taking photos of people going about their daily lives. No one refused me (though I often made babies cry with the gleam of my white skin). Communication was limited to vague hand gestures as I spoke no Malagasy aside from “I want to get off the bus” and “pineapple” and the locals spoke no English, yet I felt like we had a connection and was thankful to see and experience the ‘real’ Madagascar (it is so much more than the DreamWorks cartoon!).
Fast forward two years. After travelling to five other African countries I returned for a few months to Madagascar. Eagerly I went out that first day to retrace the paths I had so often walked two years prior. Weaving through the rice fields. Ambling down the rough cobblestones streets. It was all so familiar, like I had never left. The months spent away a mere dream blown away with the rising sun. I didn’t take my camera that first day, as I knew my arms would be full with groceries on the return trip but assured myself that the following day I would return with my camera.
The next day came. I went for my walk. My camera did not.
Every day I promised myself that the next morning I would take out my camera. And every day my camera remained in its bag as I wandered around the city. Everything was the same. Except me. I was different.
It took me a while to put my finger on it, but I came to see that I had become a bit jaded. Tired of always being the foreigner. Unwilling to draw attention to myself through taking photos, though it was my favourite thing to do. Instead of stopping and exchanging smiles and playing charades to get the message across I slipped along the edges of other people’s lives, as unobtrusive as possible.
I longed for the ability to blend in instead of sticking out like a sore thumb. I loved the culture and my surroundings but didn’t love the feeling of not totally being ‘in the know.’ Of being a foreigner. Though I felt at home the majority of the time, something would come up sooner or later that reminded me once again that I’m not from here. And as I always strived to adapt to the local culture it grated against me that I was still a foreigner.
The fact is, that no matter how hard I tried to blend in, I still stuck out in many of the places that I visited—not all—but many. I’ve adapted and changed over the years and always try to adopt the customs and ways of life in the places I visit, but whether it’s because of appearance, language or mannerisms, it’s apparent that I’m not from this continent. Despite my wish to be considered a local I am a ‘waza’ or ‘mozungu’ – a foreigner.
Why was being a foreigner a problem though? It isn’t wrong. It’s not a bad thing, nor anything to be ashamed of. It simply means ‘I’m not from around here.’ But in my mind to be called a local would have meant that I had made it – that I had fully adapted and that I ‘belonged.’ And while it is important and recommendable to assimilate into the local culture where you are, it is equally important to remember that the world is not our home.
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” – Hebrews 11:13-16 (NIV)
As Christians we do not belong here!
“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,” – Philippians 3:20 (NIV)
And so I’ve been reminded that being a foreigner is ok – it is what I am called to be. I still stick out like a sore thumb, but that’s just another opportunity to be a light for the Lord. The curious questions about what brings me to the country provide an opening for the reason why I do what I do. Jesus.
I will continue being culturally sensitive and aware wherever I go, but I will also set my mind on the things above as it says in Colossians 3:2. On the place He has prepared for those who follow Him.
I am a foreigner and I hope you are one too.
Rebecca is a photojournalist from beautiful British Colombia, Canada. Like a true Canuck, she loves playing ice hockey, wearing toques, and being outdoors. Rebecca is serving in southern Africa.