The way we perceive, think, feel and act is influenced by our culture. According to UNESCO, culture is the sum of spiritual and material, intellectual and emotional properties, which characterize a society or a social group. Culture encompasses the ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs (Preamble to the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity).
A country or a nation can consist of several cultures as it is the case in most African nations.
Culture is not something static. It changes all the time due to the various influences. The way people think, act and what they belief in changes from generation to generation.
Human beings are experiencing comfort and security in the fact of belonging to a group whose limits are clearly defined and established on beliefs and rules shared with the other members of the group. The "cultural identity" is founded on interpretations of the own group and other groups. People belonging to other groups are judged based on learned generalizations. But prejudices and stereotypes often create discrimination and exclusion. The own way of life is perceived as the best way to live, leading to rejection of all who are different.
Intercultural learning is therefore necessary to develop tolerance and empathy toward strangers.
“My family told me not to go to Bukavu to attend the APRED-workshop, because Congolese are ‘wild’, they hate Rwandese and attempt to kill them whenever they get a chance. Despite this I went, but inside me I was trembling. The first day I was quiet, tensed, thinking all the time of the rumours I heard about the Congolese. Then step by step it changed. The Congolese participants were so kind, we ate together, shared the same room, discussed, played and laughed. I was impressed by all the openness. There was never any sign of hostility. I became real friend with some of them. I will teach my people back in Rwanda about the reality. I need to help change all the wrong perceptions they have.”
(Grâce M. Kayitesi, Youth Président, EPR Kihinga,Rwanda)
“After participating in the exposure visits in Rwanda organized by APRED I have realized, that what people told me about Rwanda and the Rwandese is wrong. Everybody tried to convince me not to go to Rwanda; that it is dangerous and I risk losing my life. I could never imagine before that there is anything useful to learn from Rwandese. During the exchange I not only realized that Rwandese are nice people, open minded and interested, I also learnt a lot I will use at my farm. I have even decided to return with my wife and study more in-depth the different farming techniques they have in Rwanda.”
(Oswald Maliro Bora, CBCA Kimemi/Butembo, farmer and Church Elder)
Intercultural learning is far from happening automatically during a meeting with a foreigner. Quite the contrary: contacts with foreign cultures often confirm old prejudices. To understand other cultures it is necessary to open up to the unknown, the differences and all the "strange" attitudes and behaviours.
Only then is there a chance to get knowledge about the strangers and to learn also about one's own culture. Openness towards strangers helps to develop tolerance and empathy. It assists to identify root causes of ethnical conflicts and to learn how conflicts can be resolved peacefully. The process of intercultural learning does not only happen on the cognitive level, but also very strongly involves the emotional level.
It is not the number of meetings with strangers which is essential, but the intensity of the situation. The intercultural learning process cannot be complete during an international meeting of a few days, but it can be a first step and prepare the basis for the future development of the personality, to understand the other, develop empathy and tolerance. It opens avenues for reconciliation and heals open wounds so that people of different cultures that were engaged in violent conflict can better live with the burden of the past.