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Elitism and student ministry for Tanzania

We’ve begun to explore the place of ‘the village‘ and ‘the city‘ in the self identities and national identities of Tanzanians, and one thing that prompted this was a sermon Arthur gave last semester at the university chapel about wealth and money. A criticism he received was that he was addressing the audience as rich (they are all urban and university educated), but missed the mark because Tanzanians are poor. Our response was to invite the person over to dinner, to learn from him and hear how he would apply the passage. His answers helped us to think about how to apply the passage to poor people and to the village, but he spoke as if all of Tanzania is rural and poor.

This is an attitude we consistently encounter. We are not just told that many Tanzanians are poor but that ‘we Tanzanians are poor’. Perhaps these kinds of statements are meant to contrast with the wealth we as westerners are presumed to have. Perhaps the collectivist identity of Tanzanians means that personal wealth is not factored into a comment like this. However, my observation is that this is how many wealthy Tanzanians perceive themselves personally as well. They are looking to improve their lot because they believe themselves to be poor.

Understanding this self-perception gives pause to the corruption narrative we in the west so often hear, that of the wealthy African who is simply greedy and wants to accumulate more and more. I’m not for a moment suggesting that greed doesn’t exist in Tanzania (greed is an issue at any level, not just among wealthy people), but I’m wondering whether there are other factors feeding the middle class striving to get ahead.

I wonder whether many comparatively wealthy Tanzanians have failed to recognise themselves as such. Because ‘all Tanzanians are poor’, their mindset is still that of everyday survival. (To be fair, wealth can be a tenuous thing in Tanzania, able to be snatched away in an instant.) Though they have wealth, education and status, they are acting as if they don’t. (We have these kinds of people in Australian culture too: think of the ‘Builder’ generation, born around WWII, who continued to buy toilet paper in bulk and shop at Kmart even while they earned six figure salaries.) What you have then, is a privileged class who do not realise their privilege. They see themselves as those who are in need of help rather than those who have the capacity and opportunity to help others.

Australian student ministry has at times despised the notion that university students are an elite, but I suspect that recognising themselves as part of a privileged class is exactly what Tanzanian students need to hear. It’s on this basis that they are able consider the purpose of high status, and how it might be used for gospel purposes. Consider the Clapham Sect who advocated the end of slavery in Britain (among other things, including better working conditions for the urban poor, and education for their children!). They could only do that because of their privileged positions!

This notion of using your position to benefit others is not foreign in Tanzanian culture: the patriarch of a family might be The Decision Maker, but he is expected to provide for his clan. The issue I’m getting at here is that Tanzanian university students may not acknowledge their position and thus don’t make that next step of serving others. ‘Elitism’ has negative connotations in egalitarian Australia, but in a culture like Tanzania I’m wondering whether it might be a resource for mobilising university students to move beyond their own needs, and towards considering how to give their lives in the service of others.

Categories: Tanzania University ministry Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

4 replies

  1. Are you saying that it is a problem for Australians to buy toilet paper in bulk and shop at Kmart? It may be that these people are making decisions about how to spend their money so that they might be more generous to others??

  2. For uni students (in any country), they are the ones who will have higher incomes when they are older, but at the time they have little income while others their age are already earning. Think of the protests when govts are cutting funding to unis, as though the students were a disadvantaged group!

    The richer people in any society (and the world) are generally more visible, so everyone perceives themselves as poorer than they are.

    1. Yes, lots of Tanzanians use loans to come to uni as well. But for many, that loan covers living expenses as well, so they sometimes have MORE money to spend because of that loan than they’ve ever had before! Of course, then there’s the paying off of the loan, but like I say, I think the mindset remains ‘getting ahead’ rather than helping others. This narrative goes even for the wealthy. Barclays bank is definitely a top-end bank, but its most recent ad uses the same language and mindset.

      The visibility thing is very true, especially with so many preachers going around said, ‘I’m rich and if you do X or Y you can be too.’

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