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A lesson about waiting for hindsight from the compost

“You can’t use compost on such small trees,” our gardener said. “It’s too strong for anything but the bananas.”

“Nonsense,” we thought, “you can use compost on anything!”

This little interaction is laden with cultural baggage.

If you’ve read The Poisonwood Bible, you’ll remember the story of the missionary who believes the ‘native’ way of planting crops is ‘heathen’ only to see many of his seeds washed out in the first rains and to wonder why those that survived failed to produce fruit. He assumed that his Europeans methods of farming were superior to local knowledge.

This story haunts me because we don’t want to make the same mistake. Cultural superiority is ugly and, in the case of the guy in The Poisonwood Bible case, just plain stupid.

But our situation isn’t simply a matter of ‘traditional’ vs. European styles of gardening. Many Tanzanians reject their ‘traditional’ methods. While every gardening TV show in Australia sings the praises of natural fertilisers like compost, here in Tanzania, people tend to assume that if something is synthetic, it’s more modern and therefore better.

Do they know something we don’t? Is it another case of Tanzanians looking down on their own cultural practices? Why do we assume Australian gardening advice will work in Tanzania?

Mind you, our gardener is a city guy, so his knowledge about ‘traditional’ crop growing is limited.

Even if he has the expertise, we may not be able to trust what he says: is he offering good advice or is he trying to get out of work?

These kind of challenges crop up every day. We are constantly questioning our cultural assumptions. Often there are no answers.

FYI, he used the compost on the small trees. Perhaps hindsight will help us to interpret this interaction!

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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