Sunday, March 1, 2015

Cross-Cultural Design

"To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some."
1 Corinthians 9:20-22

Our time in Gabon was kicked off with a devotional on this part of Corinthians. We discussed how we, American architects and engineers, could possibly become like the Gabonese in order to succeed at the job God called us to do. Sometimes, we realized, relating to the Gabonese wasn't as complex as understanding their deepest cultural values. Sometimes, it simply meant not assuming that their perceptions are, or should be, the same as ours. 

In the U.S. I have been to two monkey-themed baby showers. They were full of cute monkey decorations, cakes, and registries full of monkey clothes and baby accessories. Along with elephants and giraffes, monkeys are often adorning children's clothing in America. But what about in Africa where monkeys, elephants, and giraffes are actually walking around?

Many of the pediatric doctors at Bongolo keep toys to give out to their patients, including beanie babies. When we asked about the few animals remaining on the shelf, one doctor gave an explanation of why she couldn't hand those out. The lamb, because she uses it for Sunday School demonstrations; the dragon, because it's too terrifying for the kids; the monkey, because when asked "what is this animal?" the kids responded "meat!!".

It was a shockingly different perspective. Could you imagine any kid in America wanting to eat a cuddly monkey? I further recognized their extremely different view of monkeys when I saw this warning poster for Ebola:

However, in relation to the architecture and engineering we had to dig a little deeper into understanding the Gabonese (although I think understanding their view of monkeys was a good start).

Like Paul, we had to find a way to become like the locals in order to ultimately bring them something greater. We had to play by their rules and take cues from their designs and methods of construction without compromising on the aspects that we know are important.

We took a lot of cues from the existing trusses on site. We realized that the EMI-designed truss (bottom-right photo) was correct overall…but the wrong metal shapes were used. With the information that we have from this trip, we now know that this is the metal that they will use, and we should design accordingly on the next structure.

We also learned that the construction men will only dig a certain depth for septic tanks and then stop. Therefore, we need to calculate the size of future septic tanks with this number, even if that means making it really wide. 

In addition, the construction teams will only use 6" CMU. We have been designing everything with 8", and didn't discover that it isn't being constructed that way until we were on site. Knowing this information might change the structural designs and is critical for our future buildings.

All of this information really validated, to me, the importance of traveling to the sites for which we are designing. Although it took about three days to get to the hospital…visiting the campus is not something we could have compromised on. In addition to the information that we gathered from physical structures on site, we also learned a lot from talking to the staff and reading their body language. One of the most important things I've learned from working in a cross-cultural setting is the difference in the directness of Americans, and the indirect communication of most Africans. Although many of the Bongolo staff that we worked with are American, we did face the difficulty in understanding indirect communication with the local staff members that we met. As if architecture wasn't hard enough without miscommunication…

1 comment:

  1. Love the cultural relativism! In most countries where monkeys and apes are native they are seen as pests and can be very aggressive. It's a common problem that the towns and cities not sure how to handle.