After arriving in Dodoma on Saturday night, the first thing we did on Sunday morning was to go to church with Neville and Elspeth. There’s an English service at 7:30am that the students are encouraged to go to and lead at to improve their English and that was the one we went to. Neville preached and in one of the application bits spoke about ‘big men’. This was a notion we were to hear time and again.
A ‘big man’ is an important man, someone with status and this is an explicit part of daily life in Tanzania. For example, we saw advertising for Barclays Bank saying, “Convenience. Security. Status.” Of course, plenty of advertising in Australia is based on gaining status too – but no one ever SAYS it! For many students, this is why they go to university – less for what it qualifies them for, more for the status it brings to have an impressive piece of paper.
We had our own opportunity to meet with a ‘big man’ and we quickly realised how egalitarian Australia is in comparison to Tanzania. Since we were unable to meet with the chaplain at St John’s who was away, we met with the Vice-Chancellor, a ‘big man’. He wasn’t that tall (not many Tanzanians are) though he was a larger man, but his presence was imposing. Someone later likened it to that of a tribal chief and that was what it felt like. Here was a person who was used to being the boss and expected to be treated like that. Of course, we were very polite to him and thanked him profusely for seeing us, but I suspect that we were a little too friendly and we found out later that we should have addressed him as ‘sir’!
Such hierarchy makes me pretty uncomfortable. I’ve been trying to work out how much of that is Australian and how much is Christian. After all, one of the failings of Australian society is a refusal to acknowledge God-given authority. But that doesn’t make the pursuit of status right. From Rom 12:16, Neville asked the students why they were at St John’s. To be a ‘big man’? Or to be ready to serve? I was reminded of the sermon series we’ve just had at church on James. Passages like James 2 make heaps more sense in Tanzanian culture than they do to an Australian! I feel excited that these parts of the Bible have been brought to life for me as I’ve read them through the eyes of another culture!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.