It helps no-one if you don’t ask for what you need
We’d been in our new house in Uganda about a week when the hospital chaplain called. He’d come to make sure that I was going to behave as a medical superintendent’s wife was supposed to behave, it turned out. He’d been disappointed that my predecessor had not been as hospitable as Ugandans expected. He wanted to ensure that I wasn’t going to make the same mistake. ‘In our culture your house should always be open to visitors’, he explained. I thanked him politely for his advice. My missionary training had taught me the importance of following the culture of the country you were living in as far as possible. I took his instructions to heart unquestioningly. I already felt embarrassed that we lived in the biggest house on the compound with the best view towards the beautiful local waterfall. Maybe I could pay back some of this inequality by having an open house.
A couple of years later, I had to return to the UK because I had become profoundly depressed. Through talking to a counsellor, I realised that one of the things that precipitated my illness was a desperate need for some privacy. I seriously regretted my unquestioning assimilation of the chaplain’s expectations.
As medical superintendent my husband was the go-to person for anything and everything that went wrong in the hospital. When there was an emergency caesarian section to do, he was called out. When the orderly in outpatients had been caught taking bribes to move people up in the queue he was called in. Those things I had expected. But when the lights on the hospital landrover didn’t work at midnight to take people home after a party, was he really the right person to call on? When the hospital cleaner needed money for school fees was the medical superintendent’s house really the first place to go?
Our house was a bungalow and people walked right past it every day, looking into our main room windows. Children would look through as if they were watching television, gawking at the strange white people moving around inside. They could even look into our bedroom. I began to be obsessed with thinking people could see round the edges of the curtains when we were in bed. There was nowhere to go to escape prying eyes.
In addition, we were expected to have live-in house staff, and they were always around. It was very difficult for my husband and I ever to have a private conversation.
Once or twice I mentioned the hidden verandah our British friends had created behind their house which they could escape to when they needed it. No-one could be offended when they didn’t answer their front door if it wasn’t clear that they were actually there. I asked my husband if we could have one of these places. He listened, but felt bad about diverting the hospital building staff to make something for us, so it didn’t happen. I didn’t push it – I just told myself to stop being selfish.
What neither of us understood was that privacy is an essential emotional need. It is particularly vital for introverts like me, and the British culture I come from values it highly. I need uninterrupted time alone. I go slightly nuts if I don’t get any even in one day. Over months lack of privacy led to a serious deterioration in my mental health. But I felt my job was to give up my needs for the sake of others. Wasn’t that what Jesus meant by telling me to deny myself and take up my cross?
Our cross-cultural training also appeared to demand that I should ignore my British culture of valuing privacy. We had been thoroughly indoctrinated with the need to follow the customs of our host culture. Too much damage had been done in the past by colonial missionaries imposing their culture on the people they were sent to. We needed to avoid adding to this poor precedent.
But following these rules was disastrous to us.. It meant I became seriously ill and had to return to the UK. There were additional factors involved in my illness, but if I had my time again this is one I certainly wouldn’t ignore. Not using the hospital builders for a couple of days to create a private space meant the hospital lost my husband’s input for six months. It also meant we did not renew our three-year contract. That was a costly mistake.
Once I had recovered, we returned to the hospital for a final few months. We had decided that we needed to leave, but wanted to tie things up well. My husband arranged for the private screening of our veranda as soon as we got back. It provided a much needed breathing space for me from the demands of having a very public home. We also asked our house staff to leave the washing up of supper until the next day so that we could have our house to ourselves in the evenings. Our last few months were much happier and I wondered if we could have survived longer if we had paid more attention to this need earlier.
I realized that Jesus took time alone. He didn’t deny himself that important emotional and spiritual need. He went up into the mountains when the clamour of the crowds wanting his attention became too much. He must have meant something different from denying yourself time alone when he told his disciples they must deny themselves.
And I realised something else. All the Ugandans who lived on the compound, including the chaplain, kept their curtains drawn all the time. They too, clearly needed privacy. The chaplain’s expectations of us Westerners had been entirely unfair.