One of the questions those of us who work for MCC in another country ask is, “What do we call ourselves?” The title we choose typically has to do with how a listener in a particular context will understand it. What meaning will they associate with that particular title that will help them better understand our agenda or what we do?
“MCCer” is what we use when we are with other like-employed individuals. “Service worker” is used to differentiate non-national from national staff within MCC. Sometimes we used the term “development worker,” though we have become increasingly uncomfortable with its assumptions — who is developing whom? “Volunteer” has worked, though our level of support and security when compared to most salaried Nigerians makes it hardly honest. And finally, “missionary” has always been an applicable term but it too carries uncomfortable associations. In Nigeria, however, it is a name we like to use particularly on immigration forms at borders. Missionaries are still held in generally high regard despite some of our history.
This summer Dave had to go through some medical tests just before returning to Nigeria. In the process of telling him the negative result of a follow-up test to one that had initially been positive, our doctor laughingly told us that we were called something else. Apparently, the medical staff who had carried out the first test, and who had worked hard to fast-track the follow-up based on our plans to travel the next day, had mentioned to her that the reason for the hurry was because we were “Mennonite Mercenaries.”
Dictonary.com defines “mercenary” as:
1) working or acting merely for money or other reward; venal
2) hired to serve in a foreign army, etc.
1) a professional soldier hired to serve in a foreign army
2) any hireling
After the chuckle with our doctor, we took that medical worker’s slip of the tongue as a challenge to be honest and circumspect about our work and motives. Not everyone sees us as altruistic – especially in a complicated global context.
The global economic system where profit rules, means that countries like Nigeria with attractive resource deposits will garner great interest from all sorts of folks. Corruption and conflict can make their work easy as long as a few wealthy elite benefit. The military industrial complex is a powerful entity with far-reaching tentacles, influencing politics and policy the world over. War is big business and has the capacity, in a perverse way, to bring about economic recovery and generate wealth. Both economic and military mercenaries abound the world over.
Though we do confess to our own agenda in returning to Nigeria after 20 years — friendships, climate, culture — we are not in it for material reward. The orientation of our work with MCC in Nigeria is to support peace and interfaith bridge-building as the theme of everything we do. The last we looked, there were no peace companies traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Though we do engage with military in Nigeria, it would be a stretch to see our association anything more than encounters at roadblocks!
Have we sold out to our peacebuilding mission so that we could accurately be called “Mennonite mercenary missionaries”??