Honor and Shame among the Sankaran in Guinea: A Case Study
In a rural Guinean village, a great chasm separates missionary from villager, not only with regard to economic issues but also in terms of basic cultural understanding of honor and shame issues. This case study explores the relationship between a missionary and her local friend and employee, and the difficulties in how to handle theft without casting public shame on the friend. It also examines the differences between the two cultures represented in regard to their views of honor and shame.
Her name was Mariama. I first met her the day we visited her West African village in preparation for moving there. Not long after my family was introduced to her village—where we would end up living for the next 15 years—she took me by the arm and gestured for me to follow her. So I did. She led me to the village spring and demonstrated that I should help her fill up her tub and help set it on her head. I interpreted this act as a gesture of acceptance and welcome, showing me customs of the women in her village. From that first interaction on her part, I decided to pursue a friendship with her.
Mariama became a friend to me in many ways. She was a willing and capable language tutor. She took me to her fields to see her hard work, letting me help her pull peanuts, pick peas, and encourage workers in her field as they planted rice. She confided details about her difficult marriage to me. She also introduced me to her family and friends and opened doors for me with many others in the village. In return, I gave her some lessons in literacy as well as exposure to the world beyond her country.
After about a year of living there, my husband and I learned that the mice in our village carried a hemorrhagic fever and realized that our baby was in danger of finding the rodent pellets that carry the disease while he crawled around our home. I was already feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities of language learning, home-schooling, and daily living, so I asked Mariama if she would be willing to clean our floors on a daily basis. She was eager to earn an income for an hour’s work each day, so she began cleaning our home. Often we would have impromptu language sessions as she swept and mopped, or we would talk about important life issues while we did the dishes together. Mariama was my window into the workings of the village and the culture of these people. I was her window to the world beyond her village. She helped us when our house caught fire. We helped her with various financial and medical needs in her extended family. I shared outgrown clothes, toys, books, and food with her. She acted as intermediary for others who needed help we could offer.
We did not understand the intricacies of patron-client relationships in an honor-shame cultureat that time, nor how honor and shame function. But in retrospect we see that as Mariama’s employers and friends of greater means we became her “patrons” and were thus responsible for the financial care of her and her family. As Westerners, we felt that we gave her a generous salary relative to the village’s standards. She, in turn, introduced us to people who could be of help to us or to whom we could offer help. She gave us honor in the village as her patrons (although we did not understand it at the time), and we gave her honor by choosing her as our particular friend.
The most important thing I shared with her was my faith in Jesus and my belief in the goodness of God. I encouraged Mariama to call on Jesus for help as one who loved her and wanted to help her. Gradually, she became more and more interested in Jesus, as she perceived his relevance to her life. I prayed with and for her and her neighbors when the chief encouraged others to take away land belonging to them, and the matter was resolved outside the courts within days of our praying. The group was grateful for our prayers and believed that God had given them justice. At one point, Mariama had an encounter with a “djinn” (a malicious spirit), and she told me later that although she was powerless against the whistling call of the spirit, she did have enough strength within to call on Jesus for help. Moments later a man was walking down the road near her and heard her distress, and he helped her into the village.
Though we helped financially with Mariama’s medications, occasional hospitalizations and surgeries, school fees, and rebuilding her house, we sometimes resented some of the additional requests (which felt like demands) she made of us. For instance, when one wall of her home collapsed, we gave her a generous amount to rebuild the wall. But rather than just rebuilding the wall, she had the whole structure torn down and rebuilt (considerably larger and nicer than before) and requested more money for new tin for her roof. We refused and explained that we had only agreed to a certain amount. She then borrowed the money from a relative and reroofed her home. A couple of months later she began to beg us for the money to repay the lender, who was threatening to take her to court.
Our limited cultural understanding caused us to think that the benefactor was only expected to give a portion of the requested amount, and the person asking for monetary help must go elsewhere for the remaining needed sum (or do without). We perceived the financial relationship as an agreement between two parties; a friendship, yes, but one we tended to compartmentalize from the requests. As I am now coming to understand the patronage system, we, as her friends, were expected to take care of her needs because of our friendship, not apart from it.
About fourteen years into our life in the village, we noticed that large sums of money began disappearing here and there. At the time we were holding a box full of cash for a church in a neighboring people group (as local banks were untrustworthy). It was out of these funds that we first realized a tenth had been taken. At first, we thought it was a coincidence. We could not believe that Mariama, our trusted friend, would steal from us after such a long and deep relationship. We tried to find some other explanation for the missing money. We started being more careful of where we kept cash. After some time it became clear that there was no other explanation. Mariama was the only person with full access to our house. She was often alone for short periods of time in the bedrooms as she swept and mopped. One day, when $500 USD of emergency money disappeared from my dresser drawer, we decided we could no longer employ her in our home.
There was some disconnect between our situation and a normal patron-client relationship in that we were outsiders; the “rules” were somewhat ambiguous for us, and we just had to feel our way along. One complication that played into the honor and shame system was a rumor circulating in the village that Mariama’s salary was more than ten times what she was actually receiving. Her extended family and friends were constantly badgering her for financial help. In their minds, she became the patron and they were now the clients. The reality, which everyone refused to believe, was that she was only slightly better off than they were. In fact, her leprous husband, an amputee, contributed nothing to the family but expenses, so she was even more disadvantaged than they, despite her higher income. Her perceived lack of generosity hurt her reputation in the village, and she suffered shame as a result.
It is important to note that Westerners also have a sense of honor and shame in relationships, although how it plays out is different from a West African sense of honor and shame. For instance, in white middle class America it is considered shameful to make repeated requests for help from friends (even one request is painful and threatens the friendship). We have a strong sense of privacy and ownership, and when friends make requests, it shames them (asking for “charity”) and throws the friendship out of balance. A person who manages his own financial affairs is considered honorable, while an able-bodied person who is dependent on others for financial help is considered shameful. Another instance of shame comes when trust is betrayed, either through talking behind a friend’s back or by theft and dishonesty. When someone we consider a friend betrays our trust, we feel like fools, which shames us as individuals.
Even though I understood the cultural clash in the frequent financial requests (especially in a culture of poverty) and learned to deal with it, I felt great shame at having trusted Mariama for so many years only to have her betray me by stealing from our family. The opportunity to make a change came when we returned after a couple weeks in the capital city. She asked me when she should come back, and we told her we no longer needed her to work for us. She began probing for an explanation. In an effort to avoid direct confrontation about the thefts, I told her we could no longer afford to employ her. That was not enough of an answer, and she continued probing more insistently. Finally I told her that we were missing large sums of money. She immediately placed the blame on her daughter (whom our teacher had caught stealing from the school house some time in the past). However, we knew her daughter had no access to our home and could not have done it. Eventually Mariama admitted to taking certain amounts of money, but she claimed it was from family pressure. She never admitted to taking the US cash.
We truly had no desire to shame Mariama. Although she had stolen from us and lied to us, we did not want to do anything to hurt her. Most people of her culture would have had her arrested and thrown in jail. We could not do that to our friend. We could have publicly shamed her before the village by calling the elders together to discuss the situation. Again, we did not want to expose her to shame in that way. So we tried to keep it quiet.
Various friends and family members came to us individually or in pairs on her behalf, asking us to allow her to work again in our home. These were people with whom we had a friendship and/or working relationship. One of these was an esteemed elder of the village who had helped us with some translation work. Another was a literacy worker we respected. Even one of Mariama’s older brothers, who represented the family, appealed to us on her behalf. Finally, close mutual friends of Mariama’s and mine came as well. Though we still considered her a person we loved, we no longer trusted her and would not allow her to come back to work in our home. We did not discuss it with her friends in the village, unless they came to advocate for her, and we felt obligated to explain the truth. We did not want her to lose face in the village, but found it impossible to hide a damaged relationship like that.
In Sankaran culture, when a person asks for “pardon,” the wronged party is somewhat obligated to pardon the wrong-doer. But for us as Christians (and I’m sure our Western worldview played a part in this), we did not feel that forgiving a wrong should be without consequences. To accept her vow that she would never steal again and give her back her job as though nothing had happened would be normal behavior in her culture (assuming the jail and public shaming scenarios had not happened). But we did not trust her word anymore and refused to hire her back. Her attitude never seemed as repentant as we had hoped, and thus the promise of future honesty did not seem genuine to us. We later learned, to our regret, that refusing to give her back the job was tantamount to shaming her, since everyone in the village knew our relationship and that she had worked for us.
As I look back on these events, I realize that we were looking for some sign of guilt and remorse. As a member of a society in which honor and shame, as well as fear and power, play a much stronger part than in my own culture, she was doubtless behaving exactly as would any shamed person. She did not act as a person who was experiencing inner feelings of guilt.
After about five months, it was time for our family to leave the village. We left on a cordial basis with Mariama. We had hoped over time to reestablish a stronger friendship, but we have been unable to return on a permanent basis. For two years Mariama disappeared from the village, presumably to work in the gold mines in the east of the country. She returned only a few months ago, weak and thin, around the time her husband died.
I sometimes ask myself, did I handle the situation appropriately? Did my manner of dismissing her cause her absence from the village out of shame? What about her faith in Jesus: did she give that up when we left? I tried to avoid shaming her, but was there something else I should have done?
At a deeper level, how much did her theft stem from anger and frustration? She related numerous times that her friends and neighbors all thought she made far more money than she did. They made impossible demands of her, casting her unfairly as selfish and stingy, a shameful characterization. When she borrowed money she was unable to repay, she put herself in a painful position with her relative. Our refusal to give beyond what we promised may have given her the motivation she needed to begin stealing what she could find from us. After all, we clearly had more than we needed, and she needed far more than she had! We will never know all that went into the thefts, but it is clear that complex feelings of shame were a part of the motivation.
In consulting with Isiyaka, our trusted village friend and cultural advisor, he explained that we acted mercifully by not taking her to court or before the elders, but that we should have extended “pardon” by taking her back into our home to work (at least until we left the country). Since we did not do that, he suggested that we give her a very generous condolence gift in honor of her husband’s death, which would both give her status in the village (by demonstrating our forgiveness) and would help her to recoup her financial losses that she apparently suffered while working in the mines.
As I recently reviewed the situation with Isiyaka, I became aware that although I have forgiven Mariama, I continue to have mixed feelings and beliefs about the whole situation. My anger still wells up at Mariama’s attitude following the acknowledgement of her theft, her excuses and blaming others for her behavior in particular. The fear that we were not as quick to forgive as Jesus would have asked of us also nags my conscience (shame?). How much benevolence am I obligated to give out in order to be a good patron? It is not enough to understand the concepts of honor and shame and how patronage cultures function; I am still a product of my culture, and though I may try to act according to my host culture’s rules, I will still struggle with my own beliefs, values, and worldview in the given situation. These cross-cultural situations are a complex negotiation process in which it is difficult to understand fully and abide by the rules.
Sherry Fariss grew up as a missionary kid in Brazil until the age of 13. She studied various languages at Abilene Christian University as an undergraduate and missions and New Testament Greek as a graduate student. She spent two years as a missionary apprentice in France. Later she received a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Texas at Arlington and joined Pioneer Bible Translators. She and her husband and kids moved to Guinea, West Africa, where they lived and served for 15 years in a Sankaran village and worked at translating the Bible. They currently reside in Dallas, Texas with their four children and continue to work on the Sankaran Bible translation.
1 Jayson George, Ministering in Patronage Cultures: Biblical Models and Missional Implications (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019).