In the last few months, our role at St John’s University has amplified again. Student fellowships frequently run events that are relevant and engaging to students, and this semester we have attempted to do the same on behalf of the chaplaincy. Like day conferences, they’re called seminas. We ran the first one on boy-girl relationships and we’re in the middle of planning a second on guidance and knowing the will of God for early next month. We’ve provided the teaching, in Swahili.
And I’ve felt ashamed to do so. I can give a talk in Swahili, but it’s in baby Swahili. People make encouraging noises – ‘Actually, you are better than I thought you would be!’ – but there’s nothing sophisticated about what I’m saying.
It’s not just my level of Swahili. It’s also that I don’t have poignant illustrations or applications. I’m guessing as to what will strike a chord with the students rather than being confident that I have the means to pull on their heartstrings and volition.
So I’m almost embarrassed to be the speaker at these events. I feel like students are merely being polite, humouring me at best. I feel like I have so little to offer, especially in comparison to some of the fine leaders we have met. I ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ These seminas are a stack of work for us to prepare, and I’m not even that confident in the product. It seems fairly condescending for me to even be considered a speaker that others would want to listen to.
But they do. Despite the fact that we feel like we are missing the mark, there appear to be points we make that resonate with students. In the semina on relationships, Arthur said, ‘The dignity of humanity is impossible without the dignity of women.’ One student told Arthur he was very moved by this statement, and that it was the first time he had understood the passage Arthur was speaking on. Likewise, when Arthur opened our talk by speaking of being explorers of the Bible, this was something the students hadn’t heard much on before, and days later he received an sms from a student saying they were still discussing it. Even the fact that we taught together, side by side, prompted conversations.
The experience of feeling completely inadequate for the task makes me want to go home to Australia, because I hate the arrogance of presuming that I am qualified to teach in this culture. I want to be a learner, but at some point, you have to try something in order to learn, but that feels like using people for my own growth. Yet, it’s not as simple as that; we are making some kind of contribution, however small. Does that contribution justify our presence here? It’s impossible to say ‘on balance’. That’s the tension.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.