Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Onion

by Debbie Burgett

The Kuna people of Panama didn't need television. They had something far better. They had missionaries!

They could count on these culturally clueless foreigners to provide them hours of entertainment -- ranging anywhere from light comedy to shocking horror. And no one in the village wanted to miss a single episode.

So they constantly walked in the missionaries' doors day or night, peeked in-between the poles of their hut walls, followed them around and carefully noted every move they made.

And those who caught the onion episode had plenty to talk about around the evening fire.

It was a typical afternoon in the village -- boisterous and noisy. The missionary wife was busy preparing dinner, under the watchful eyes of her Kuna onlookers.

Then a tribal lady came to bring her a small gift of a plantain (cooking banana). She wanted to welcome the new missionaries to the village. But then the missionary lady turned around and gave her an onion! Right out in front of everyone! An onion! It was horrible!

And quite suddenly, the typical afternoon was no longer typical.

The tribal lady became visibly upset and hurried out of the hut with the onion, leaving a very confused missionary wife. What was going on?

It actually took quite a long time, and many more such mistakes, for the missionaries to finally be able to peel back the cultural layers and answer that question.

The first layer was the minor issue of the onion itself. The tribal lady had no idea what the strange looking object was or what she was supposed to do with it.

But the second layer, the cultural one that the missionaries weren't aware of yet, was the real problem. While it was culturally appropriate for the tribal lady to give the missionary a personal gift to welcome her, it was inappropriate for her to receive a personal gift back. Why? Because that wouldn't be "playing fair."

The Kuna people, whose culture is based on everyone doing what is best for the group rather than for themselves as an individual, were allowing the missionaries to be there to benefit the whole tribe. So anything the missionaries had to offer should be equally shared by everyone in the group.

When the missionary gave her a personal gift right out in front of everyone, instead of in secret as she would learn later to do, the tribal lady would be accused of trying to get in good with the missionaries for her own personal gain and labeled a bad, selfish Kuna.

So facing the very real possibility of being shamed and shunned because of it, the totally embarrassed tribal lady ran right to the village chief, who quickly returned the offending onion, offering the simplest explanation they could understand, "She doesn't know what to do with it."

The new missionary went back to cooking her dinner -- still wondering what exactly had really just happened. And the tribal people went back to their normal activities -- watching the missionaries. What would these strange foreigners do next? The Kuna people would be staying tuned!

Update: Now 29 years later, there is a strong Kuna church that sends out its own missionaries. The New Testament was translated and distributed in 1996 and the Old Testament will be distributed in 2011. One of the believers, who was a toddler when the "onion episode" took place, is now part of the Old Testament translation team

Story taken from "Tribal Beat" a monthly newsletter.
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Mrs.Rabe said...

Friends of our family, from my home church, Ralph and Jacquie Johnson were the first New Tribe Missionaries (along with their partners) to work in the Kuna village of Pucuro. Many, many years ago....

Becky K. said...

How very interesting. The things Missionaries have to take the time to learn in order to really communicate can be so small...but have such a huge impact.

Thanks for sharing this.

Becky K.

Tracy said...

I just love that story! Wonderful job these missionaries do.

TanyaLea said...

Neat story. Thank you for sharing. It's so interesting how culturally diverse this world is. How one act of kindness can be taken so differently in another nation. Live and learn. I pray I don't make any huge 'mess-ups' in that category when we visit China!! ;)

And thanks for the links. I'm heading over there next!

God bless!! <><

Randi Troxell said...


thank you for sharing this..

have a wonderful wkend!!

Ruth said...

Hi Melissa, could you get a copy of the book and send it to me because it says united states only on it when you go into get a copy.

Thanks Ruth