In the months before our move from the UK to East Africa, there were many things to prepare, as you might imagine. The biggest stress for us as a family was the imminent birth of our second child. But there was also the incidental detail of having little idea what my job was going to entail.

Ugandan Tea estate near the DRCongo border

I was heading out to teach at a relatively young higher education institution in Kampala (and thus doubling the size of the theology department). Getting to Uganda by some means or another had been our plan since marriage, even though it took us a few years. Rachel had been born in Kampala and went on to live in various African countries until she was eighteen. So now it was happening. But did we have a clear idea of my role in advance of getting there? Not at all! I had never taught before and so I was in for a multi-sensory, multicultural, full immersion into a foreign culture, a completely new job and working pattern, a very different way of life.

Many friends and family had advice for us and we naturally tried to take in as much as possible. At least we both knew the country a bit, having visited a few times before moving. But one conversation, in particular, made a profound impact on me. It came from a veteran overseas worker, who had spent several decades in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. We were invited by mutual friends for a meal so we could meet him. His advice boiled down to two key suggestions.

The first is one that everyone tells you. It is the heart of Cross-Cultural Work 101.

1. Don’t come with pre-conceived ideas about HOW to do things.

This is crucial. As outsiders, all too familiar with our own cultural habits and assumptions, we easily get disorientated by foreign behaviour and expectations. We presume that our way is the right way and theirs the wrong, for reasons such as our apparently greater efficiency, convenience, and methodology. It never occurs to us that there are deeply ingrained, and in context, actually sensible or necessary reasons for what happens in the new environment. A classic example is westerners’ forward planning and dependence on calendars. But in the Uganda context, there are all kinds of things that make this very difficult. For starters, there’s the issue of extended family responsibilities. When there is a family funeral, everyone is expected to attend. The problem is that funerals happen very quickly after death. There might be only 36 hours notice. Then there is the problem of the road system. If it happens during the rains, a drive normally taking five hours might take ten. And on it goes. Is it any wonder that the complexity and unpredictability of life make long-term commitments very difficult to plan?

So one has to spend considerable time and effort acclimatising to the way things are done. It may well be that in time it will be possible to suggest appropriate tweaks and adaptations. But that may never happen or be possible. It takes months, or even years, to grasp the intricacies of what lies behind cultural practice. A new or recent arrival should certainly stay silent and try to go with the flow.

But then came the second, more radical, piece of advice. This was quite a surprise and was harder to stomach, at least initially.

2. Don’t come with pre-conceived ideas about WHAT you will do

Now, I went out to be a degree-level lecturer. The subjects I was due to teach—and in the end, I had only 3 weeks to prepare my first set of courses in my first term!—were close to my heart and passions. I was looking forward to getting stuck in. But it became clear even after a few weeks that the administration of the college left much to be desired. Things were fairly chaotic, as illustrated by the fact that nobody had figured out when the Christmas vacation was due to start. So I offered to figure out dates for the whole academic year, though, of course, I had ulterior motives. My parents were coming to stay with us for Christmas and I wanted the term dates to ensure I wouldn’t be working then!

But this set me on a slippery slope! It was now clear that I could spot administrative tasks necessary and then fulfil them. A fatal mistake! So by the third year, I became Academic Dean, and then in the fourth, was Acting Principal. By the end, I was teaching just one hour every two weeks. Administration really is not my first love, nor even my sixth. I can do it, but as a means to an end, rather than because it is my passion or gifting.

And at the start of that fourth year, that second word of advice came back to mind. I had this role for a season, as we awaited an East African to take over the role. Having a westerner (a ‘muzungu’ as we’re called) in charge felt inappropriate for several reasons. But there was nobody else available and so I had little choice. I went expecting to teach. The college’s leadership wanted me to direct.

I learned a huge amount in those years. And I have little doubt that it was essential preparation for my work now for an international organisation working in roughly 70 countries. It instilled a vital ethos. We come to serve indigenous leaders and churches. That means we often do things we don’t necessarily expect to have to do!

This is adapted from my contribution to a friend’s LinkedIn series of stories of lessons learned at work.

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