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Crossing cultures with attitudes to money

Cross Cultural Partnerships by Mary Lederleitner is quickly moving up my ‘to read’ list. It will be a valuable resource as we think about sustainability in student ministry but we are already faced with considerable ethical issues around money.

Apart from beggars, sellers hassling us in town, and bargaining at the market, in the six weeks we’ve been in Dodoma, we’ve also been asked for money for sick people: an employee, an employee’s wife, an employee’s sister-in-law recovering from a caesarean. Then there’s the time we were asked to bail a brother-in-law out of gaol. There are the school girls who came to the door asking for money to go to the Catholic youth conference. There’s the little boy who tried to sell us a puppy.

The culture in Tanzania towards money is different from what we’re used to in Australia. There’s no shame in asking people for money, repeatedly, even after they’ve said no. And it is OK to say no. Or to give towards the amount the person asks for rather than the whole thing. (It’s possible the person has inflated the price as well.) But there’s still a range of attitudes and responses that we’ve observed so far in our time here. The most common expat attitude has been that it’s better to be ripped off than to be ungenerous. This is the same as the approach we took in Australia when, for example, a homeless person asked us for money.

An additional complexity in Tanzania is that many expats employ people. Some expats choose to employ more people than they really need or to do jobs they could do themselves, in order to provide another person with an income.

But one expat who’s been here for a number of years was quite disdainful about employing extra people. She said you can’t think of it as your responsibility to provide work for them.

This issue of responsibility is an interesting one. The way family structures work, there’s often a clear head of the (extended) family who has the responsibility for caring for them. If someone asks us for money, one question to ask is who is the person responsible for looking after them. Is the responsible person not doing their job? Are they not doing it because the person can get money from a mzungu instead?

Dependency is tied up with poverty and corruption. Our driver in Dar es Salaam is something of an entrepreneur, having carved out a niche for himself with westerners by getting to know our ways. His opinion is that sometimes people don’t get a ‘real job’ because they think it’s easier to ask a mzungu or try to cheat one out of something instead. (Although, unemployment is a big issue as well!) Wealthier Tanzanians we’ve met speak of themselves as self-made and say that others should be able to do the same. They tend to have a strong sense of responsibility to provide for those in their care not just in material terms but also by instilling in them values of hard work and trustworthiness. What looks like a lack of compassion might be tough love that’s better in the long term.

One motivating factor for me continues to be western and post-colonial guilt. There are broken things about Tanzania – some of those are because of sin in Tanzanians, and some of those are because of past sins of westerners that have ongoing effects. So I do feel a sense of responsibility, but it’s more complex than simply asking whether we have the money to give.

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

2 replies

  1. Even in Adelaide one is occasionally asked for money. But the question is framed as “can you HELP me?”… On reflection, this is what my thoughts were:
    You say you want help.
    But what you’re asking for is money.
    But what you need is help.

    And the real help they – helping someone get out of their long-term problems – is really hard, but something the Church needs to get into more – with a combination of specialists and ordinary loving people.

    In Australia most churches can point to their denomination’s community care arm, which has lots of runs on the board assisting people and avoiding the pitfalls in doing so. And since they are funded by churches (and therefore their members), no generous church member need think themself the un-neighbourly person passing by on the other side.

    Even more so in other countries the body of Christ needs to have a visible arm which is obviously helping the people who need it most.

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