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On being an American-African or better American-Malagasy?!

Madagascar (Photo credit: luc legay)

It’s not often I think up something I can’t then Google and find a million or more hits on, but the word “American-African” is one of those things.[1] Is it a word, then? I guess not (yet). But it does explain a lot about me.[2] You see, while I was born in Minnesota, the son of Norwegian-Americans, was a “cheese-head”[3] while very young and speak English with the distinctive Minne-sohhtan accent[4] for which we’re known, from 3rd grade till I graduated from high school[5], I grew up on what has been described as a “cross-cultural bridge”[6] between what was then a mostly white, mostly Minnesota Lutheran (think Lake Wobegon) world of my most recent ancestors[7] and the “urban” Tolagnaro[8] versions of Malagasy culture[9].

I lived there for 10 years as a child to teenager because my parents were Lutheran missionary teachers who taught at a school for mostly American Lutheran missionary kids[10] that were located in Tolagnaro. I was blessed to have a mom and dad who very naturally reached out to those around them, no matter what culture they were.[11] While we had several Malagasy who helped with cooking (“from scratch” meant you needed to go to the market and point out which chicken you wanted before you brought it home—squawking loudly if you didn’t know how to hold it, killed it, cleaned it and only then cooked it), housekeeping (both my mom and dad taught at the school I went to) and yard work (no lawn mowers, so the grass, which grew year round in that tropical climate, was cut by hand). But, even so, we were still required to make our beds, help with the chores, wash dishes, etc. And we watched both mom and dad work together with the Malagasy who helped us live there. In fact years later, one of my missionary colleagues indicated how he had been working with a man who used to work for my parents who told him, “One of the things about Ted Berkas was, he never asked you to do anything he wasn’t willing to help you do himself.” And they also had special Malagasy friends, including one who became one of the top leaders of Lutheran World Federation, another who was the oldest living royalty of his Anosy[12] clan before he died (he was also my parents’ Malagasy language teacher), another who sold us some of the best bananas in the world (we worshiped at his church by candle light as there was no electricity for miles several different Christmas eves), another who started as a Bible student and later became a nurse and then pharmacist, along with several of the beggars who came by each Friday.

So what impact did all this have on me? In many ways I grew up in a very sheltered, very white privileged version of Madagascar (a bit complex as think Oahu without all the people, buildings, freeways and sisal instead of pineapple plantations. And also, while we were some of the poorest expatriates in town, that still made us “richer” than most Malagasy). On the other hand by high school I’d watched my parents befriend many Malagasy, including one they provided hospice care for to the last days of his life, as he had no family to help him at those last, difficult days of his life.

I had very good Malagasy friends we’d play a variety of sports with, talking about life when we got tired of shooting baskets. I also greatly enjoyed opportunities to do trips, many on bicycle, out into the surrounding countryside, at least getting brief glimpses of rural Antanosy life. All of this (and I believe the good Lord) also left me by the end of high school[13] with a deep frustration bordering on festering embarrassment over all I was blessed with in comparison to most Malagasy. My interest (which became a “Calling”[14] over time) became to see if I could be a part of positive responses to the poverty so many people in this world face (something I continue to find to be much more easier said than done). This resulted in my spending my time in college and university preparing for international development work by studying engineering. So it was very good timing when near the end of my Masters program, my wife and I were invited by the Malagasy Lutheran Church to work for them in the area of community development and the American Lutheran Church agreed to send us over to do that just before Christmas, 1982.

English: A woman and her child in MadagascarOver the now almost 30 years since we left to first work in Madagascar, one of the challenges I continue to struggle with is as basic as, “Who am I?” While, thanks to my parents’ and my wife’s parents’ Scandinavian American experience growing up in rural Minnesota, plus a lot of visits to rural Midwest congregations that supported us while we were missionaries, I understand the Lake Wobegon part of who I am (or at least my family was) quite clearly, I grew up on a beach in Madagascar, not Minnesota. However, while I grew up in the Anosy[15] part of Madagascar, I’m not Antanosy (the people of that area). While I speak Malagasy with the “sh” version of “s” that signifies me as a “southerner” of that country, I don’t speak Anosy, which is the language of the land I grew up in.[16]

So who am I? I am not alone in still being a bit confused as I seek responses to this basic question[17]. As a “missionary kid,” I am part of those of us now known as ATCKs (“Adult Third Culture Kids”[18]), who were kids who lived in a country other than their parents’ or their passport’s, because their parents were working internationally. We are called “Third Culture Kids” because while many of us grew up in the midst of a second culture that was not that of our parents, we actually lived in a “third” culture which was located somewhere on what’s been described as the “bridge” between the culture of one’s parents and that of the people we lived amongst.[19] So what does all this make me now as I approach my mid-50s? In the words of some of those who’ve studied us (A)TCKers, it makes us comfortable both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. In the words of a friend, we’re GGs (“Globally Gifted”—to which my immediate response was, “We’re also PPs (“Perpetually Perplexed”)! What Dr. Hiebert, a very distinguished TCK, described as “a form of cultural schizophrenia.”[20]

In my own case, I was able to return to the land I’d so naively grown up in and was then blessed to work with Malagasy and other elders who patiently sought to educate me about the worlds of Madagascar, explaining in detail things I’d either not even seen in all my years there, or having seen, did not understand. Were they successful? Only partially, but it was not due to their inability and patience to teach me. On the other hand I’ve been described by one African friend as “having drunk the water.” Another, from another part of the huge continent of Africa, laughingly told me at one point, “You’re a Malagasy—with a white face!”

But is this true? Is this the answer to this ongoing question of “who am I?” No, it’s not, as remember, I grew up and then worked from the “bridge” between my parents’ and the Malagasy cultures. And not surprisingly, life is quite different on that bridge. But hopefully it has resulted in a self-reinforcing humility about my own understanding of things and respect for others, that says, “You really don’t (and probably won’t) understand everything going on here. So best to sit, watch, listen, ponder and be blessed with what you learn, being helpful as you can, most likely much more in little things than big ones.” For as my Book so eloquently describes it, we as the people who live on this big Earth of ours are truly both fearfully and wonderfully made!


[1] While Google comes up with nothing for “American African”, Bing does. [2] Including that it’s not really a word (at least according to Google)![3] From Wisconsin! Even got yelled at by Vince Lombardi once.[4] See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLDO1VJwSzo[5] With the exception of 8th grade when we lived in south Minneapolis.[6] See http://www.ouka.fi/efa/pdf/dialogue/Mayorsfunction.pdf[7] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Wobegon[8] Though Tolagnaro wasn’t a very big town when I was growing up there in the late 60s up to mid 70s. This town was called “Fort Dauphin” till President Ratsiraka’s “revolution” of 1975 (see http://www.wildmadagascar.org/overview/loc/16-history_1975-1992.html for more information on this “revolution,” see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T%C3%B4lanaro for more information about Tolagnaro).[9] See http://www.wildmadagascar.org/people/home.html. Land of the Antanosy historically, but Tolagnaro is a several hundred year old harbor town with a very complex ongoing story of being a place where Madagascar and the outside world continue to meet in some very complex ways. See http://www.jstor.org/pss/125026 for some of the early history and http://www.panos.org.uk/?lid=29563 for current mining realities.[10] And other expatriate kids as we were the only English language high school on the island at that time.[11] Including some very interesting tourists, anthropology and other students, volunteers, sailors, etc., but that’s another story.[12] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antanosy[13] I graduated in the top 10 of my class which would be more impressive if there had been more than 10 of us in my class.[14] “Calling” is such a complex thing in my faith perspective, I’m still working on understanding what this means and has meant for my wife, children and me. See http://www.augsburg.edu/lilly/documents/luther.pdf[15] See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anosy[16] The Malagasy I speak is more of an urban, heavily Imerina (highlander) influenced version of that beautiful, yet oh so complex language (for example, if you’re fluent in speaking Malagasy, using the present tense is almost the same as slapping a person on the face in many situations).[17] “Where are you from?” is an easier question for me to answer, as all I have to do then is ask, “When?”[18] Also includes military and foreign service “brats” and others. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_culture_kid.[19] See http://www.ouka.fi/efa/pdf/dialogue/Mayorsfunction.pdf 

[20] http://ojs.globalmissiology.org/index.php/english/article/view/51/149

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