Culture Shock- Poverty and privilege

While the clock ticks and we are constantly overwhelmed by the generosity of our friends and family helping us fundraise towards our target, Dan and I have been busy studying culture shock, cross cultural communication and the minefield of issues surrounding extreme poverty.

All of this is to prepare us to serve as missionaries in Swaziland, in an unknown culture, where often Siswati is spoken rather than English, and where English is spoken but the culture means that life is interpreted and expressed in a vastly different way.

Before our trips we studied a little of Swaziland’s history, culture and traditions and some of the Siswati language. Siswati and English are both official languages of Swaziland, English being used widely in government business, public affairs and school, but with Siswati being the widespread mother tongue, especially in rural areas, we are giving ourselves a head start. We are very fortunate that we both love learning languages and  hope it will reduce our culture shock, and we found that every little bit that we learned was worth it once we were in the country on our first trips.

Apart from the language, the biggest impact in terms of culture shock, even in the very short time we were there, was the contrast of poverty and privilege, both between the UK and Swaziland, and between individual places within Swaziland. In the first blog post, ‘Swaziland 2014’, I wrote briefly about the day we went from meeting rural clinic patients and hearing their heartbreaking situations, seeing food parcels given out for emergency care, to driving straight to a beautiful  tourist location and having a decadent lunch there while struggling to process what we had encountered that morning. It was extremely difficult to transition from one to the other without feeling the impact of the stark differences, without at the very least having pangs of guilt and a lot of hard questions raised in our minds.

Why were we there at Ngwenya Glass browsing trinkets and totting up how much extra paraphernalia in weight we could squeeze into our bulging luggage, while clinic patients were struggling to carry emergency food parcels back to their children because of their medical condition? Why had some of the patients looked at us with what appeared to be anger or at the very least suspicion? Why were eating cake as if we were celebrating, just after hearing about murdered children and AIDS diagnoses? The questions robbed my appetite and I thought I might never have another ‘frivolous’ coffee, but here I am now drinking a £2.50 honey latte while typing these words.

Even as we travelled from the airport in South Africa to Swaziland I found myself gawking at the houses on the edge of the motorway, saying ‘Look, look,’ to my 11 year old nephew. Why was I saying ‘look’? I wasn’t interested in the average South African houses with pretty Spanish style terracotta tiled roofs lining ordinary looking streets. But when we passed the salvaged corrugated metal roofs leaning into mud and stick walls, shacks that looked like allotment sheds, we stared and said ‘There, see,’ and pointed and went eerily quiet as they went out of sight. Why the fascination? Did it make us feel better about our relative privilege or worse?


One of the projects we had on the 2014 trip was to help build a mud and stick house for a family who had grown into 3 generations and they needed to have a second structure so that the new parents and baby could have a space to sleep separately from the other 10 family members. The father was a recovering alcoholic  trying hard to stay in employment, so they needed extra help. We had started on the house with the aid of the local ICBC* pastor, and after a while we bonded with the young missions team who were with us and got into the craziness of throwing clay at the walls once the mud and stick frame was filled with stones. So when the pastor started telling us the family’s story the reality of the situation and the size of their home started sinking in. I couldn’t imagine my own family of five comfortably living in the space that was for 13.

Why are some of us born into privilege and some not? And does it make us any happier? How will we deal with the swinging emotions- from feeling searing guilt over the apparent advantage that we have such large homes, free healthcare, endless entertainment options, – to intense gratitude and back to guilt, and confusion that we ended up here like this and the seeming injustice of life.

Making Christmas bags. As lovely as they are, how would our 'western' kids react to these as Christmas stockings?
Making Christmas bags. As lovely as they are, how would our ‘western’ kids react to these as Christmas stockings?

You may have noticed that it has been a little longer than usual since the last post- this is partly because ideally I  like to wrap up a post  like this with some positive, forward-thinking thoughts to consider, but these questions are very difficult and I have decided to end here for now otherwise it will never get posted! So I am going to close and come back to the subject later! We would really love to start a conversation so any comments and thoughts would be very appreciated! Thank you for reading, to be continued…

*In Community By Community is how Challenge Ministries titles its community projects, teaming up with local pastors who share a vision for helping the communities most needy, especially widows and orphans, through orphan care, local church, childcare training, pre-school, medical care and home visits. For details visit


Rachel Smart

Missionary, mummy and mime artist

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