Analysis of a critical incident that occurring around the organisation of a parish council and the underlying cultural values that are at stake.
In October 1983, a young German missionary priest Fr. Peter Schneider, was appointed to be the first parish priest of the newly created St Mary’s parish, Amaudara, Nigeria. On the day of his arrival, he was welcomed with pomp and pageantry, first in the village square with the village chief and his cabinet at the head, and then he was led amidst dances and acclamations to the parish house . Two months later he decided to form the parish council. He consulted the local catechist to ascertain the possible persons he could invite to be members. The catechist proposed to him 30 names with the academic and social credentials of each person. From these he chose 14 persons : 5 men, 5 women, 2 young men and 2 young women. One of the women by name Iruka, was a graduate of the prestigious University of Nigeria, Nsukka. She studied administration and personnel management and was the president of Catholic Women Organisation of the mother parish from which St Mary’s, Amaudara was carved out. The priest judged that from her credentials, she was best placed to serve as the chairman of the parish council. She sent her a note informing her of his intention. In her reply the woman wrote “Rev Fr., I assure you of my willingness to render my services for the progress of our new parish. But I think that what you have proposed to me may be difficult to accept. The chairman of the parish council is generally considered as the parish priest’s right hand man and thus the mouthpiece of the parish before the people. I would suggest that you better ask some questions before the inaugural day.”
The first meeting of the parish council was scheduled to hold at 10.00 am on a certain Saturday. It happened to be the market day of the village, called Eke-Amaudara. By 10.30 am none of the invitees had arrived. As about 11.30 am only four members were present. The parish priest was a bit upset, but since it was the inaugural meeting, he made great effort to keep his calm. By 12.30 p.m. all the members had arrived.
After a brief opening prayer, Fr. Schneider started immediately by haranguing the people on the value of time and why fixed appointments should be respected. Evidently, he was not aware that the people were expecting him to welcome them officially to the meeting by presenting them with kolanuts and wine. He did not notice the embarrassment and deception of the people. After that, he tabled the agenda he prepared for the meeting and then announced his appointment of Mrs Iruka as the chairman of the parish council., urging her to accept because of her competence. The woman was highly flabbergasted and reclined the appointment outright. There were murmurings and signs of anger on the faces of the people present. Then the priest said, “I think we may not continue this meeting today, it is adjourned till further notice”. With these words he dismissed the people.
INTERPRETATION OF THE INCIDENT
This critical incident that took place in a parish setting present us with enormous issues of cross- cultural encounters which led to some misunderstandings. We shall interpret these misunderstandings under the following schema:
Interaction between the work space and the social space (Professional vs personal comportment) :
The two parts of the incident (the reception ceremony and the inaugural meeting of the parish council) occurred while I was on a visit to a friend who hailed from Amaudara. It happened that on the day of the proposed meeting, I had gone with my friend to greet the new parish priest and present ourselves to him as junior seminarians. I got some part of the information (for example the content of the reply of Mrs Iruka) later as the meeting became object of talk in the whole village.
In Igbo traditional society, meetings are generally commenced with the presentation and blessing of kolanuts. It is the person that hosts the meeting who procures the kolanuts and presents them to the people as a sign of welcome before any other thing. If that is not done, the people would feel embarrassed and would not be ready to pursue any discussions. The young German priest was not aware of the custom. Moreover, he did not see the invited people as his personal guests. He was acting in his capacity as the parish priest. They were to discuss formal issues concerning the parish. Of course in his head, there should be a clear separation between the work space and the social space. He would have perhaps imagined the presentation of any kind of drink at the beginning of the meeting as a form of corruption. In his mind such gestures, if at all, could be welcome only at the end of the meeting.
The parish priest came from an Germany, an European society, where for many years men and women are considered equal in the society. Jobs and appointments are offered not based on sex but on merit and competence. In Amaudara village, traditional Igbo community the conception men have of women and that women have of themselves is different. In Igbo society, women understand men are their heads. A married woman comfortably and joyfully calls her husband “Oga” (Boss). It is not that women are rendered subservient, but they understand their position in the society. No normal Igbo woman, in the traditional setting would like to assume leadership position where men are present. It could easily be seen as unmannerly and a great effrontery. That could earn her bad names. The first thing that shocked the proposed members of the parish council was the equal number of men and women invited. In other parish councils they knew, only one or two women are members. But that was not the problem, they were ready to accept it so long as a man is the head of the council. The straw that broke the camel’s back then was the announcement of the appointment of Mrs Iruka as the chairman of the parish council. This is the pill the people found impossible to swallow. But the priest had no ulterior motives. He judged his appointment from the academic credentials of the woman.
High context and low communication:
Surely the priest did not understand what the reply of Mrs Iruka was meant to communicate when she wrote: “what you proposed to me may be difficult to accept”, “I would suggest you ask some questions. The priest may have understood that difficult here means not easy, and that was why he persuaded the woman to accept the appointment. But coming from a high context society, she actually informed the parish priest that “this is not possible” and told him to “get informed of what obtains” in their society.
Conception of Time:
The meeting that was scheduled for 10.00 a.m. eventually took off around 12.30 p.m. The lateness was unimaginable to the parish priest. It caused him to get upset. But the fact was that he was not aware of the pulling-power of market days in traditional Igbo society. As an German, he knew that he could walk in any boutique or supermarket and buy what he needed. But Eke days in Amaudara are sacred. People generally gather in the village square to buy and sell, receive friends from the neighbouring villages, drink kegs of palm wine, share news and entertainment. No sort of meetings are fixed on those days. If at all, it would be late in the evening. The people thought that somebody would inform the parish priest and therefore he would understand their lateness. On the contrary, the priest knew nothing of how precious and quasi “inalienable” the Eke market day is to the people. In his head the incident confirmed one of the prejudices he acquired before coming on mission in Amaudara: “Africans do not respect time”. That was why he deemed it necessary to started by correcting the so-called “african concept of time”. But this hortatory words instead of helping to correct the people, annoyed them all the more.
The parish priest single-handedly selected the people he invited to the parish council. He single-handedly decided to appoint a woman to the post of parish council chairman. He did not “ask some questions” as suggested by Mrs Iruka. Surely he thought he was assuming his responsibility as the parish priest. But such actions in Amaudara would be viewed as too arbitrary and individualistic. And by so doing, he stepped on the toes of the people. In Amaudara people do things together : farm works, construction of local huts, marriage and funeral ceremonies etc. Had he made consultations, had he submitted the choice to the people, he would not have made the mistake of putting equal number of men and women, which constituted the first embarrassment of the people (even women) at their arrival. Surely the priest thought he was avoiding discrimination against women.
In conclusion, we must surely agree on the good will of the Fr Schneider. We must also admit the enthusiasm of the people who saw the creation of their village parish as a sign of development. But things went wrong on the day of the inauguration of the parish council because of some cultural misunderstandings. Each of the parties : the parish priest on one hand and the people on the other hand, acted according to already acquired cultural baggage. As a missionary the young German priest would have taken time to learn a little bit about the culture of the people he was to administer. He would have asked some questions2 before deciding to appoint Mrs Iruka as the chairman of the parish council. The people of Amaudara on the other hand demonstrated the “fish-in-the-water” (the law of the fish) syndrome. They simply thought that anybody, including the young German priest, would understand their cultural milieu and practices and respect them. For them it is normal to come inculpably late should any meeting is fixed on the Eke market day. For them it would be abnormal for the priest to blame them. For them it is abnormal for a woman to be appointed leader where men are. But for the priest, competence should be valued, equality between men and women should be promoted, people should respect time schedules etc. All these are normal. What therefore is normal in the German society is not normal in Amaudara and vice versa.