Walking through the market, two men called out to me ‘mvivu’. It sounds a lot like ‘mbivu’ which means ‘ripe’ (often overripe), a common word in such a setting. But we couldn’t work out why it was directed at me. Arthur wondered if it had some sort of sexual innuendo.
Our language tutor helped us to figure it out. Mvivu means ‘lazy’. Arthur was carrying most of our shopping while I just had Elliot. The traditional thing is for women to shoulder all the burdens and for men to go free. So they were calling me a lazy wife. What should we do next time we go to the market?
Option #1: conform
We did not come to Tanzania expecting to maintain our Australian lifestyle, and that includes when it comes to gender roles. We believe there are multiple valid cultural expressions of gender. Just because we find it offensive doesn’t make it wrong. And even if it is ‘wrong’ (says who?) conforming to that may be a way of respecting people here and earning their trust. It might even be part of identifying with them. My first thought was simply, ‘That’s it, I should carry everything now.’
The problem with this option is that Tanzania is not a uniform society. Things are changing. Some men help their wives, care for their children, perhaps do a bit of cooking or housework. Some Tanzanians might call me lazy; others would think of Arthur carrying the shopping as a good thing.
Option #2: equal rights
Part of the changing attitudes in Tanzania is an awareness of ‘equal rights’. There are discussions happening about the role of women and men, both in the church and in society at large. So we could become part of a growing Tanzanian voice that looks to the rights of women in the west for its model.
The problem with this option is that we aren’t part of Tanzanian society. No matter how long we’re here, we’ll always be set apart in some way. So our voices aren’t Tanzanian voices. It could easily come across as imposing our own cultural expectation. Not only is this neo-colonial, but it also betrays our own model: being like Christ who gave up his rights.
Option #3: Christ and the church
We’ve decided that Arthur will still come to the market with me, and will still carry some shopping. But that’s not about equal rights. It’s about being the head who gives himself up for his body. Arthur’s been prepping some phrases to help explain that. Now, we’re told that to some, such an attitude will simply indicate that he’s been enchanted. (Did you get that? I’ll not just be lazy but also a witch!) But Christ’s model is so counter-cultural, perhaps that sort of explanation is to be expected.
My hope is that this third option isn’t just us imposing our culture but that it’s us living lives transformed by Christ. He transforms all cultures, whether Australian and Tanzanian. The place to work out what that looks like here is with Tanzanian Christians. This situation ought to drive us to greater partnership with Tanzanians, knowing that we have much to learn from them, not just about how to be a Christian but how to be a Christian in Tanzanian society.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.