Rodger and his wife Lynne are deeply committed to shaping the hearts of African leaders and entrepreneurs, in order to build a flourishing community. They do so mainly through business (e.g., their 5-star boutique hotel and restaurant in northern Mozambique), but also serve a community of cross-cultural workers in southern Africa – providing personal care, strategic planning, and administrative support.
I am an American who has lived in Africa for nearly 20 years. My wife and I have witnessed cross-cultural workers for NGOs, businesses and embassies come and go – everyone with their own experiences, stories, and memories. They invested a lot of money and travelled many kilometres – everyone with their own ambitions, hopes and dreams. Many chose to uproot their families to become part of the international community of expatriates – wanting to be part of the social and economic development solution in Africa. Yet, many never truly arrived. They stayed (or became) well-informed critics, ideologists, financiers, or observers.
Culture can be defined as ‘a philosophy of life’, meaning the values, norms, and behaviours of a group of people. In one way or another, these cultural norms separate individuals belonging to one community, from individuals belonging to other communities. As such, cultures can be identified within the boundaries of countries, provinces, organisations, schools, churches, families and friendship groups. A cross-cultural worker is someone who intentionally and regularly engages another culture, different to our own native culture, in a practical and personal way.
Successfully impacting another cultural community though, is not found in the contents of suitcases, wallets, and CVs. Effective cross-cultural workers need to transition from well-informed observers to becoming active participants – we must take the transformative journey of what I call ‘the last two feet’.
The metaphor of ‘the last two feet’
Within ‘the last two feet’, those around me experience the best (and the worst!) of who I am. My character, relationships, actions, and motives can no longer be disguised or explained away. Everyone involved in the intimacy of ‘the last two feet’ encounters uncomfortable smells, strange customs, conflicting ideas, biases, shortcomings, deception, arrogance, and selfishness. Through shared experiences, we (eventually) also encounter true friendship, trust, and maturity.
Adjusting to life abroad, learning how to communicate, adapting to local customs, and doing without modern conveniences are difficult. What is more difficult, however, is making the wonderful, dangerous journey of the last two feet. It is a short distance, but rarely crossed, because it can be severely uncomfortable, and comes at great personal cost.
The last two feet is costly
Time and money
A story is told of a business leader going on a long trip. While traveling he saw a wounded stranger lying by the side of the road and became concerned about this man’s well-being. He stopped, tended to the man’s wounds, put him in his own vehicle, and brought him to a safe place. The next day, he paid the bill and gave the manager some additional money, asking, “Please continue to care for this man until I return.” The business leader had to carry on with his journey, but assured the manager, “When I return, I will cover any additional cost.”
The parable above illustrates that the last two feet is costly. Obvious costs are time and money, and many cross-cultural workers are short of both. We must carefully consider how we spend our financial (and emotional) resources, while trying to impact as many people and fund as many projects as possible.
Now imagine if a different business leader passed by the same stranger mentioned above. He also recognised that the man needed help and stopped. He offered a few words of encouragement, gave the man some water and money, and told him about the location of shelters where he could go to receive care. The business leader undoubtedly felt pity and wanted to help – as long as it was not too expensive, did not take up too much time, or caused him to lose step with his own schedule or budget.
Which response had the biggest impact on the stranger’s life?
There is wisdom in being willing to re-evaluate goals and strategies, and to re-align budgets and schedules, based on the local context.
Often what is needed more than ‘widespread impact’, is connecting with fewer people, in more holistic ways, over longer periods of time. To bring about the long-term positive change we want to see, we need to embrace the importance of the mundane. It is in the day-to-day sharing of life, together discovering the implications of the principles, knowledge, and values we hope to leave behind, that the change becomes possible.
Rights and privacy
One of the most important lessons we learned over the years is that our need for privacy, personal space, and individualism can hinder our ability to live effectively within the last two feet.
Collectivism stresses the importance of the community, while individualism is focused on the rights and concerns of each person. In individualistic cultures people are encouraged to be strong, assertive, and responsible – it is a worldview that values autonomy, independence, self-sufficiency, and uniqueness. While collectivist cultures might be more likely to turn to family and friends for support during difficult times, those living in individualistic cultures are more likely to go it alone. A collectivist worldview values those who sacrifice their own comfort for the greater good of everyone else.
Being part of an individualistic or a collectivist culture influences nearly every aspect of behaviour, including the careers we choose, the products we buy, and the social issues we care about. Of course, this means that where these two worldviews meet, conflict will arise, and sometimes humour too.
Many years ago, when I was new to Africa, I was working side-by-side with a young African friend, deep in the bush and hours from my home. For lunch we enjoyed a local favourite called baggia, which is basically a small cake made from chickpeas, garlic, salt, Piri Piri (hot sauce) ground into a paste, and fried in oil. Soon after, however, I was in serious intestinal distress. My friend was late for school, so we drove back to his one-room house (constructed from thatch and mud), he jumped out of the truck, and rushed off to wash and get dressed. As is the African custom, I was first greeted by our local friends who asked about my family, how the journey was, and so forth.
By the time I was able to politely excuse myself, I had totally forgotten about my friend. I ran to the toilet and found him there completely naked. By then, however, I was desperate. He wasn’t embarrassed, and simply pointed to the ‘long drop’. Unfortunately, the squatting posture required a sense of balance new to me, and I had to call out for help. While severely embarrassing for me, and hilarious for him, this experience was the beginning of a deep friendship that led to personal growth for us both.
The power of the last two feet lies in our willingness to laugh at ourselves, to risk embarrassment, to set aside our rights and need for privacy – so we can share life with others in real, meaningful ways.
My wife and I arrived in Mozambique on 4 June 2003. Like so many before us, we thought we were prepared for the challenges of cross-cultural living. Little did we know how much our resolve to stay the course would be challenged.
We arrived exhausted after many farewell gatherings, packing, and traveling with small children. At first, we could not even buy bread by ourselves – we were like children who needed someone to help us do everything. We lived in temporary housing, with the bathroom outside and only a trickle of cold water. A bucket bath was our new reality, but we did not mind too much as the tropical heat was intense, day and night. We felt isolated and anxious – intensely missing family, and afraid of what our decision would cost our children. We survived numerous robberies, direct and indirect opposition, misunderstandings, painful boils, tick bite fever, malaria, dengue fever, rashes, parasites and blood infections. Gratefully, we all survived, and then eventually, we thrived.
Yet nothing prepared us for the painful cost of having to send our sons to boarding school. After finishing their primary school education in Mozambique, they both attended high school in Kenya, two countries away. Their school bus was a small plane that returned once every 12 weeks. They loved their high school years, but for us as parents, those years together as a family were lost forever.
Dreams and ambitions
Most cross-cultural workers arrive with a big dreams and high expectations. The problem is that the dream is (usually) developed outside of the cultural reality in which the dream is meant to have a positive impact.
I was no different – I was going to teach at a university, and imagined myself having significant impact in the students’ lives. Over the first three years we learned the language, settled into African life, learned how to care well for ourselves, and accomplished a few of our goals. Then we were removed from leadership, our visas were revoked, and we were asked not to return. It was a tough. We were disillusioned, broken and lost.
The big dream had died a slow and painful death.
But I am so glad it did. We spent the next two years listening, learning, asking different questions, and investing in friendships with key African leaders and young people. This gave birth to a new dream that is rooted in healthy communication, cultural understanding, the felt needs of the African people, and strategies that have long-term, sustainable impact in our lives, and the lives of hundreds of African leaders.
The last two feet is uncomfortable
No-one enjoys being uncomfortable. Working in a cross-cultural context, however, guarantees that you will often find yourself in uncomfortable situations.
A few years ago, the Island of Mozambique hosted a regional soccer game. As I approached the stadium, I noticed a group of young boys climbing over the wall – I told them to get down, and to pay the entrance fee. A few older men intervened, clearly upset that I was preventing the boys from watching the game. I again stated that an entrance fee was required by the organisers. They repeated that it was okay for the boys not to pay because they genuinely wanted to watch the game. I repeated that without payment, watching the game was not an option. They repeated that the boys should be allowed to attend simply because they desired to do so. Clearly, two worldviews were in conflict – one valued law and order, and the other valued desire and opportunity. So, I paid the fee and entered the stadium. The boys did not pay and entered. Everyone had a great day.
Generosity and reciprocity
The sharing (or not sharing) of resources in a community can create many uncomfortable situations. And many relationships are lost due to a misunderstanding of the role of the cross-cultural worker in meeting practical needs.
Therefore, the art of generosity should be closely linked to reciprocity, which is the social norm of exchanging something with another to gain a mutual benefit.
In cross-cultural work, we are often confronted with overwhelming needs. But I learned the hard way that unwise generosity can meet a need today, while destroying a relationship tomorrow. It is an art form that needs to be carefully practiced, to have the positive impact we hope for.
Think of an orphanage in a rural, poor community, solely funded and operated by an under-resourced African man and his wife. A well-meaning colleague began to support them financially on a monthly basis. The funds were given freely, with much love and compassion. Other friends also began to visit the orphanage and build relationships with the leadership. One couple was so moved by the needs of the children, that they wanted to give the orphanage a large gift. I recommended they not give money directly, as we did not want to set an expectation that every visitor would give money. They ignored my advice and slipped the leader a large roll of cash at the airport upon their departure. From that day onwards, the leader of the orphanage always accompanied visitors to the airport in hope of a financial gift.
A year or so later, my colleague was called away to another position and left the country. The orphanage had become dependent on the monthly support. I was a friend, and the new leader of our organisation, but unable to continue the financial support. The sad reality is that when the funds disappeared, so did the relationship. Those heartfelt acts of generosity undermined the development of a sustainable solution and caused the permanent loss of relationship and influence – because it was void of some form of reciprocity.
In a similar rural community, our organisation started an egg farm as a way of meeting the practical needs of the locals – while teaching, mentoring and assisting young Africans to realise their own dreams. The farm housed 10,000 hens and produced over 1 million eggs a year. This approach was not based on pity or handouts, but on the principle of human dignity and reciprocity.
Luis came from a typical rural family. He was strong and smart, but without hope for a better future. He began working and learning, quickly rising through the ranks to become a shift manager and then part of the leadership team. A few years later, he bought his own land, built a simple house, and was preparing to be married. He had become like a son to me, and we were so proud of him. I told him that my wife and I wanted to buy his wedding suit as a present. He looked me in the eye and said, “My friend, if I am man enough to get married, I am man enough to buy my own suit.”
The egg farm was an effective way of sharing resources, loving on people, and demonstrating compassion through business. It fostered dignity and personal responsibility. This kind of generosity, rooted in reciprocity, produced sustainable results and ongoing relationship.
The last two feet exposes character
Not only is the journey into the last two feet uncomfortable and costly, it also exposes the cracks in our character. Conflict is inevitable. It is how we respond and engage within the last two feet that will make the difference.
Most cross-cultural workers are resilient, honest, caring people, driven by purpose, and committed to hard work. Yet there are a few subtle prejudices that are real and pervasive in our field of work. As cross-cultural workers, we need to have an honest discussion about the stated goal to empower, develop, and mobilise others in the community. Many developing leaders are not allowed to truly lead, or influence financial decisions, or authentically pursue personal growth and affluence.
Interpersonal racism refers to prejudices and discriminatory behaviour where one group makes assumptions about the abilities and motives of other groups, based on race. This set of prejudices can lead to terrible cruelty, whether intentional or not. Imperial apologists have claimed that non-Western cultures are incapable of reaching modernity without Western ‘guidance’. Yet colonialism and the abuse of power have left deep scars in Africa, and for those genuinely interested in the welfare of non-Western countries, the first step is to acknowledge this.
Unfortunately, subtle forms of racism and paternalism are still pervasive today – even among missionaries, cross-cultural workers, NGOs and governmental employees. Personal proximity and mission do not automatically eliminate these issues. If we hope to live well within the last two feet, we need to address these issues directly and honestly.
I saw this more clearly when we were preparing to return to the US for a visit, and were repeatedly asked the following questions by well-meaning friends, other business leaders, international workers, and NGO associates:
All of them love the African people dearly, and care deeply about the work. There was no malice or disdain intended, yet their questions and assumptions revealed an underlying interpersonal racism that continues to influence their actions.
Over the past year, racially motivated crimes and political riots have also exposed entrenched racism in the US. As a result, I have been subjected to all kinds of racially charged accusations, by Africans who do not know me, my history, or my work. To them I am a white, male, expatriate, and guilty by association. (I was counselled to listen to and affirm their feelings, and hope that I have been successful.)
In a society in which all aspects of identity and experience are racialised, and one group dominates politically, socially, and economically, those who are bombarded with negative messages about their own abilities and intrinsic worth may internalise those negative messages. It holds people back from achieving their fullest potential, obscures the structural nature of racial oppression, and reinforces those systems.
The Macua-Nahara people of northern Mozambique are perfect examples of this incredibly damaging type of racism. They were subject to slavery, colonisation, and economic oppression for hundreds of years. During the time of slavery, the only way families could protect themselves was to ‘sell out’ their neighbours through deceit and secrecy. They were used by the powers of the day to manipulate and cheat others, as the only way to protect their own husbands, sons and daughters. The colonisation that followed exacerbated this by limiting education and prohibiting free movement.
As a result, the Macua people (especially on the Island of Mozambique) believe themselves to be untrustworthy, and unable to stand on their own two feet. They see friends, marriages, and partnerships as temporary and disposable. The most practical way to survive is to use others to get what they need, and when that is no longer possible, it is customary to dispose of the relationship and obligate someone else to meet their need. This obligation is typically through debt, pregnancy, or sexual favours.
Only within the last two feet, after years of personal investment, and usually with only one or two people at a time, is there hope for change.
Leadership and work ethic
It is one thing to train people to do specific tasks. It is quite another to shape the hearts of developing leaders and trust them to lead, fail, learn, start again, grow and mature. This is the goal of the last two feet. It is to live deeply, transparently, and beyond the training manual, how-to books, and motivational seminars.
Abdul was a street youth, selling trinkets and swindling tourists out of their cash as often as possible. He had a big smile, long dreads, and an outgoing personality. In time, he became my friend, contract labourer, house helper, beach worker, waiter – and today he is the Operations Manager of a boutique hotel and restaurant. He is a single father, homeowner, and respected member of the community. His success can be attributed to his own hard work, natural gifting, persistence and resolve to have a meaningful and sustainable lifestyle.
Abdul has never thought about the last two feet, I am sure. I have never discussed the concept with him. He has been living it, however, for the last seven years. As he and I work together in this business he truly has seen the very best and worst of me. He has seen me lose my temper, speak unkindly, struggle with my wife, and make poor decisions. He has also seen me wanting to correct my mistakes and learn from them. He was fired by me at least three times – each time for good reason and with significant consequence. Each time he was re-hired, it was after a good amount of time, restitution, and a season of proving. You may ask, “Why would you hire him back?” The answer is simple. Because I saw in him what he was not able to see in himself.
This is the heart of the last two feet. This kind of development cannot be taught in a book, seminar, or training exercise. It must be experienced over time. Has Abdul become all he needs to be to lead effectively? No, and neither have I. Together, and in the space of the last two feet, we continue to grow and mature together.
If we hope to build a cross-cultural community that continues to grow in maturity, we must be able to manage conflict in a positive way, and lead others in doing the same. How we deal with personal conflict reveals much about our character and goals in life. It exposes how others perceive our leadership, our (real) willingness to listen, and whether we value (or not) perspectives contrary to our own.
For those of us struggling to manage conflict well, we need to be aware of our word choices, tone of voice, body language and facial expressions. We need to create space for others to speak truthfully. While I still try to avoid conflict, if possible, I am no longer afraid to lean into the issues, seek understanding and common ground, and discover a healthy way forward.
Years ago, my wife and I invited eleven young African men to come and live in our home. These men were the ones who taught us about the power of the last two feet. It was in that shared space that significant transformation happened in our lives, and in theirs.
Any cross-cultural work requires a lot of commitment, time, resources, and personal sacrifice. If we are willing to push through the challenges presented by the last two feet, we can vastly increase the probability of long-term sustainable transformation, and preserve the legacy of our work through those we lead, for generations to come.