For Edem and Pam Dzunu, the desire to help others develop intercultural communication skills stems from personal experience.
In 2009, Edem, who is originally from Ghana, came to Missouri to meet his then-fiancé’s family for the first time. The couple was shaken when Pam’s family immediately rejected Edem and refused to even talk to him because of his racial and ethnic background.
Pam quickly realized that her family and friends’ distrust of Edem was based on a fear of the unknown. Because they didn’t know anything about the place he came from, they were apprehensive about his relationship with Pam. Although Pam described this conflict as “inevitable,” she also said that it never caused her to question her relationship with her fiancé.
What was Edem experiencing during this time?
“A lot of confusion and fear and pain,” he said. “I’m very far away from home and all of a sudden realizing that I was not being accepted...it was a very painful experience.”
Although it took several years, Pam’s family eventually accepted Edem as they grew to understand him better and learned more about his background.
“Truly they have fallen in love with Edem. I think my mother loves Edem more now than she does me,” Pam joked.
The Dzunus, who both work for Washington University’s Office of International Students, decided to start a non-profit with the mission of fostering dialogue that could bridge cultural divides like the ones that initially prevented Pam’s family from welcoming Edem.
Their organization, Baobab People, is named after the Baobab tree that grows in Edem’s native Ghana. Baobab trees are known for their extremely large trunks, which are impossible for one person to reach around by themselves. They symbolize the need for community and interdependence that define the work the Dzunus are doing in St. Louis.
The foundation of community, as they see it, is communication. When Pam’s family and friends were telling her not to marry Edem, she realized they were not even willing to speak with him. The couple believes strongly in the potential for respectful conversation and education to bridge cultural divides, which is why Baobab People focuses on facilitating dialogue and learning.
“The idea that there are certain situations that are just taboo and that people do not want to go there is completely false,” said Edem. “We now know that people want to have those conversations, except that they do not know where to go to have those conversations.”
In creating spaces that allow people to dialogue in safe, productive ways, Baobab People aims to eliminate the fears at the root of intercultural conflicts.
“Everybody has a story that needs to be heard,” Pam explained. “One person’s voice in not more valuable than another person’s voice, and when people are not heard – like Edem wasn’t heard – then misunderstanding just continues.”
They have hosted a number of community events, the most recent of which was a conference workshop titled “Our Police, Our Community.” There are several more events scheduled for the fall, including an annual conference on cross-cultural communication and awareness which will be held at Saint Louis University in November.
“What we went through was all about the fear of not knowing,” Edem said. “We always worry about those things that look and are foreign to us…but we cannot put on display our fears in a way that will cause pain and hurt to other people.”
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.