The story of the Lost Boys of Sudan (Mylan & Shenk, 2003) re-affirms and relates several aspects of intercultural communication. These include differences within the areas of nonverbal communication, social organization and cultural values. The following is a synopsis of those particular features of the film that support and exemplify key concepts of intercultural communication as presented by Samovar and Porter in their text Communication Between Cultures (2004).
Early in the film, the protagonists Peter and Santino are at a Kenyan refugee camp, and it is here that one can perceive Sudanese social collectivism (Samovar & Porter, p. 61). The connection and support system of the Sudanese social structure—which includes their family, friends and extends into their villages and nation—can be seen by such affectionate, cohesive terms as ‘brother’ and ‘dear’ and by their general demonstrative, warm behavior toward one another. In fact, later in the film, Santino reveals his surprise and disappointment at how–when in America–one is expected to do everything alone. After all of his roommates leave him alone in his Houston apartment, Santino laments (and I’m paraphrasing), “I am all alone here. No one can live alone” This is in keeping with the ideas of Samovar & Porter who note how most African cultures value collectivism (p.61)—while individuality is stressed in the dominant American ( middle-class white males of European decent) culture (p. 119). Santino’s despair is exacerbated by the fact that in Africa one’s identity is based on the collective social system… (p.61) In America Santino’s core perceptions of ‘self’ and what defines who he is have been completely turned upside down.
An example of differences within the area of nonverbal communication can be seen at the aforementioned Kenyan refugee camp. Here Sudanese males often clasp hands while walking in a show of kinship or friendship. They hug each other in a genuine display of companionship and camaraderie. These gestures (as noted by the “Lost Boys” themselves) are not done by most heterosexual American males. The “Lost Boys” quipped that if they touch or show affection in America, “…people think you are homosexual.” As Samovar and Porter explain, “A limited number of studies reveal that African-American males touch each other more often than do white males” (p.186). I would contend that the same conclusion may be drawn from the behavior of most African males versus that of white American male culture.
Further, Samovar and Porter discuss eye contact and how in many parts of Africa it is a show of respect to lower one’s eyes (p.182). In the film, both Peter and Santino often lower their eyes both while–and directly after–talking. In opposition, in America, direct eye contact is not only valued—it is considered a sign of trustworthiness and honesty.
Another noteworthy aspect is the importance the “deep structure” (pp. 84-87) element of religion plays in the lives of Peter and Santino. For both of these young men, the religion of choice is Christianity—and it was a Christian network that made it possible for their American venture. Both boys—especially Peter—maintained strong Christian ties in America through new friendships and church attendance. A deleted scene even shows Peter discussing doctrine and worshipping with some Mormons. Even more telling, it was a religious war (between Muslims and Christians) that devastated Sudan. Christianity, therefore, served the boys as an agent of assimilation into American culture.
Further, Samovar and Porter emphasize the “value of talk” (p.150) among African nations. In the film, this value is easily discerned—especially in the Kenyan refugee and later, within the Sudanese group at the Houston apartment complex. Santino, in particular, seems to be quite a ‘talker.’ Americans, too, stress the value of talk.
Once the ‘boys’ entered the United States and found themselves among other Sudanese refugees—they evolved into one of several American co-cultures, which includes Latin-Americans, women and African-Americans. (pp. 10-11) The ‘boys’ even state that it is better to leave the Sudanese culture back in Africa—to just ‘forget about it’; however, the Sudanese boys maintain culturally-unifying ties with their homeland through songs of nationalism and struggle, phone calls to/from Kenya and through other activities—such as Santino’s attendance at the ‘Lost Boys Retreat’ in Washington D.C.
In their new roles of members of an American co-culture, Peter and Santino use a variety of established means—several of which are mentioned by Samovar and Porter (pp. 39-41)–to learn the new culture, such as their work/school experiences, new social contacts/friendships and church attendance. Peter’s experience playing basketball serves as a valuable cultural lesson. Peter states that American players do not use their brains to play—they instead use roughness—which supports Samovar and Porters claim of the basic socially assertive/aggressive nature of the American male (p. 209). Activities such as trips to the DMV and grocery store are also means by which the boys gain American cultural information.
A more obvious fundamental cultural difference is that of housing. One of the boys is afraid that their Houston apartment building will fall on him—to which a fellow refugee replies, “Yeah, you just came from mud huts.” Another Sudanese–worried that he would go through the floor—was afraid of living upstairs. The simple act of eating presented another cultural difference. Upon being served a meal while aboard an airplane, one of the refugee asks, “What is this stuff?” (On second thought—that might not be a cultural difference after all…) Further, the Sudanese boys were amazed at the amount of food Americans have at their disposal–and how often they eat it. According to Peter, only two meals a day are served in Sudan.
Further, the boy’s quest for an education was impressive. I could not find a reference via Samovar and Porter regarding the value placed on education among Africans (in particular, the Sudanese)—but considering all of the tribulations and challenges the boys had to endure to obtain one, I believe education to be valued as much (if not more so) in the Sudanese culture as it is in American culture.
On a more personal note, I liked how Peter ‘discovered’ a truly all-American passion: the cheeseburger. Also, I found something touching about the juxtaposition of cultures presented as Peter is learning to sing Broadway’s Rogers and Hammerstein’s Austrian ‘folk song’ “Adel vise” in music class. Finally, I think Santino aptly sums up the experience of all individuals who leave their home culture and attempt to assimilate into a new, unfamiliar one: “There is no heaven on earth.”
Mylan, M. & Shenk, J. (Directors). (2004). Lost Boys of Sudan. [Motion picture]. United
States: Actual Films/Principe Productions.
Samovar, L.A., & Porter, R.E. (2004). Communication Between Cultures (5th ed.). Belmont: