I was born in England, in Yorkshire. I see myself now in a photo as a young boy, holding my mother’s hand in the snow. My wife Ester was born in Africa. She grew up on a remote plateau, under the burning African sun.
We would never have known each other by accident. We came together by arrangement, when my dying wife chose Ester to be her “replacement”. It was a most unusual experience, which led to situations one would usually never know. I sketch just one of them here, and how it taught me.
The first time I went to visit Ester’s childhood home on the plateau, we drove through a small town, then crossed a stream over a low bridge. We wound our way over a treacherous dirt pass, and through a farmyard, and pulled to a halt.
A wiry, bearded man came down the mountainside. Ester kissed him on the lips. He briefly took my hand, then dropped it. He didn’t look at me. He didn’t speak to me.
Ester wiped away tears. She said to the man, “Where are the potatoes?” He said, “There are two sacks of potatoes in the shed—but one of them is rotten.” They exchanged a few more words about potatoes, then the man walked back up the mountain.
“Who was that?” I asked. “It was my father,” said Ester.
Her father? Then why didn’t he speak to me? Why didn’t he look at me? And what happened to the customary endearments? “Good to see you, Dad. Love you, Dad.”
That first meeting with Ester’s father seemed to encapsulate one of our great cultural contrasts: a kiss on the lips, and some talk about potatoes—but where were the customary endearments? I discovered that, in many ways, Ester’s African culture was non-verbal.
As an Englishman, I was taught to articulate things. On the one hand, thoughts—on the other hand, feelings. It is more or less expected of all of us to express our thoughts accurately, and our feelings precisely. Not so in African culture.
At first this absence of thought and emotion—at it seemed to me—was hard for me. Especially, as our relationship deepened, Ester seldom said anything that seemed to mean anything—about us. I became disheartened.
But the answer revealed itself slowly. I realised more and more that it was her face which spoke, and her body. Ester had an enormously expressive face. Her cheeks would quiver. Her eyes would go dark. She would purse her lips. She would put her fingers to her face. And she had the sunniest smile.
In fact, there were so many visual cues that I thought that I would never pick them all up. Yet in time, I was surprised how fast I did—until it became second nature for me to understand her without words.
Not only that, but I came to understand her culture. A whole new world opened up to me—in people’s faces, and movements—in the shop, on the street, or in weekly worship. I had been blind to it all before.
It was a difficult but charming lesson. There is treasure in other cultures, to which we may be quite blind. At first it may all make little sense to us—even distress us, or shock us—until it all becomes clear.
About the Guest writer: Thomas Scarborough is a Congregational minister and a philosophy editor. He is the author of An Arranged Love, the true story of an arranged marriage in Africa. His book is on Amazon.
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