On our recent trip to Songea, we saw a bit more of village life than we normally encounter in Dodoma. It’s one thing to want clean water and education for people caught in poverty, but I found myself pitying the people I saw because they will spend their lives in the one place, each day a repetition of the last. What purpose is there in their lives? Where is the space beyond necessity for creativity?
I was confronted with my own (not so latent) cultural superiority. This experience cast a searchlight on my own motivations.
First, I was pitying before I’d listened. I thought I knew something of these people’s lives before we’d even had a conversation. We westerners do this so quickly, thinking we know the problems people face before we hear from them what they are. Do village people feel ‘stuck’ or are they content? Can they even be clumped together as a homogenous group like that, as ‘village people’? What beauty have I failed to see in my haste to make judgements? What are their hopes and dreams?
Second, I’d taken the way I see the world and assumed it was good for everyone. I’ve grown up being told that I can and should make a difference in the world. Captain Planet told me ‘The Power is Yours’ and I believed it! The search for importance permeates every part of life. Idolatry of self is a universal problem but in the west, we’ve made it into something of an art form. In advertising we’re told that a product will fulfil us; in romance we talk about a ‘significant other’; we talk about our jobs as a ‘vocation’, a ‘calling’, or a ‘career’. I am no exception to this: in our vision video, we talk about changing the world, with the not-so-subtle implication that we ourselves are part of that.
Like all idolatry, this is the distortion of something good. It’s a wonderful thing to work for renewal: we serve the one who is renovating a broken world!
But to what extent does my outlook have a place for living a quiet life? Is there room in my activism to believe that God is at work in the mundane as well as the exciting? Do I believe that ‘being’ can be just as radical as ‘doing’? Is my theology of grace resilient enough to hold that ‘making a difference’ is immaterial to my status in the kingdom of God?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.