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A lesson about our TCK from watching the kids at church

I was standing outside the church at Songea because Elliot had been making noise. I watched the other kids who were there, all peacefully reclining on their mothers’ backs or sitting still on their haunches. Meanwhile, Elliot tore around the yard, covering himself in dirt. Is this sort of curiosity and energy just personality, I wondered?

Perhaps it is. But then again, we’ve been stimulating Elliot’s interest since he was a very little baby – singing to him, reading him stories, placing him under mobiles, giving him toys, throwing him up in the air. He’s not even one yet and we’ve laid the building blocks for independent thinking.

The reality is, however, that people change external cues of culture, such as dress and food, far more quickly than they alter their core values, manner of thinking of belief system.

Ruth van Reken, ‘Third Culture Kids’

Pretty soon, Elliot will have lived in Tanzania longer than he lived in Australia. And yet, even if I carry him on my back, he’s still an Australian baby at some level. Watching Elliot and the other kids at church I realised, he’ll always be kind of in-between.


His favourite food is chapati, a Tanzanian staple, but he’s much too independent to tolerate being fed uji, the staple for kids – he’ll do it himself, thank you! He’s already a Third Culture Kid, defined by four characteristics:

1. Distinct differences. Even if we could somehow re-program Elliot (and ourselves) to think differently, he will always be mzungu – white person. You can’t escape skin colour.

2. Expected repatriation. Gone are the days where you were able to contextualise completely because ‘missionary’ work was almost the same as immigration. We’ll return to Australia every 3 years and, at some point, permanently. Elliot will need to be able to go to school and function in Australian society too. That affects how we live here in Tanzania.

3. Privileged lifestyle. This isn’t just about wealth (though we are wealthy, even though we spend only $2 a day on food.) It’s also about opportunities like schooling, access to medical care, and flying in an aeroplane. And it’s about how people view you – being special, perhaps having parents who are honoured.

4. System identity. As missionary parents, we don’t want to put pressure on Elliot to be a Christian, but he can’t escape the fact that he’s part of a ‘missionary family’. However unwarranted the pedestal, it’s inescapable at times, whether in Australia or Tanzania. ‘Missionary’ is a label he’s got whether he likes it or not and he’ll have to come to terms with it.

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

3 replies

  1. I don’t have anything profound to say except that I really liked this post :) Praying for you guys as you raise your little “Third Culture Kid” :D

  2. As a TCK/MK myself, this rings true. It’s not a bad way to be though, I loved my childhood & wouldn’t change my upbringing for anything in the world. Elliot is a blessed little boy. :)

  3. My wife and I raised two TCK boys and we are so grateful for that experience. Their ‘world view’ was considerably different as a result and I think it has made them better able to cope with life. It wasn’t without its concerns but I wouldn’t swap it for any other way to raise children. As a parent, I benefited from having fewer distractions from the commercial world. Relationships were far more important than possessions and experiences were richer. Elliot is indeed a blessed little boy but so are you, his parents. Take lots of pictures; they will appreciate in value as the years pass by.

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