When I get told off for dressing my son inappropriately, sometimes I try to give reasons to explain why. For example, I might talk about the weather or his level of activity. However, I commonly receive the same baffling reply, ‘Well, you’re in Tanzania now!’
When this happens, I think to myself, did they not understand when I said that Australia and Tanzania have similar climates and Australian babies don’t need to be rugged up all year round? Or did I use the wrong word to communicate that he gets hot because he’s active?
But this is not a language issue. It’s a worldview issue. We’re talking past each other.
What I think I’m doing is giving reasons for my choices. A Tanzanian sees me not fitting in.
I’m trying to show how I’m right; they’re trying to show how things are done here.
Logic is the currency of my argument; belonging is the goal of theirs.
I come from an individualistic culture, one where a mature person is one who ‘thinks for themselves’. Tanzania is a collectivist society, where loyalty to the group is paramount. A person who voices a deviating opinion too strongly or too often is a person of bad character. We’re in the same conversation but we read it very differently because of our worldview.
This emphasis on belonging also means that doing something in a Tanzanian way is a powerful statement. When I wear Elliot on my back in a kitenge, I am not so much saying that it’s a great innovation or how much Elliot enjoys it, so much as sharing in living life like a Tanzanian. It’s about participation rather than reasoning.
While my inclination is to explain my actions, a Tanzanian’s impulse is conform. Becoming part of Tanzania is about much more than how I dress my child. It’s a way of thinking and communicating.
One thing I’m continuing to think through is how to do dissent well. If I’m going to continue to do some things differently, how might I talk about this with Tanzanians in a way that makes sense to them?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.