We have these dear friends. Let’s call them Andrew and Rachel. They’re Tanzanians, 10, maybe 15 years older than us. They’re highly educated and lived in the west for a few years so they know a bit of where we’ve come from. They’ve had quite a bit to do with missionaries before and are keen to make sure that we are taken care of.
Last time they came over several months ago, I cooked Tanzanian food as I always do when we have Tanzanian guests. At that time, they told me they had expected that I would cook wazungu food and they like wazungu food. When I asked them what they meant by this, the example they gave was garlic bread.
So this time I cooked them garlic bread, together with spaghetti bolognese, and lamingtons for dessert. They certainly liked the garlic bread but it was quickly apparent that they had never seen spaghetti bolognese before. As the night progressed, I realised I’d taken their comment from last time about liking wazungu food as a request or a preference. However, it turns out that it was a comment meant to make me feel at ease, like I could cook what I wanted. Of course their preference in Tanzanian food! So here we were with them trying to be hospitable to me by eating wazungu food, which I had only cooked because I thought they wanted wazungu food, when I’m quite happy to do the normal thing and make Tanzanian food! It’s like we were trying to out-hospitable one another.
This is the awkwardness of cross-cultural relationships even when people understand where you’ve come from. Sometimes it’s easier to relate to people who have no idea. That way at least it’s just us trying to accommodate others. With these fine folk, they are trying to put us at ease, to accommodate us in all our foreignness. Everyone’s trying to be hospitable to everyone else, and there is so much which is assumed and unsaid as we all try to love one another.
And yet, with all that awkwardness, these guys have been an absolute godsend. In our first year here, we had no cultural mentor – no one willing to guide us through how to relate to our boss, or tell stories about how going out, engagement and marriage work, or explain the history behind why people treat us in a certain way. But for the last 6 months, these guys have done these things for us and it has made a world of difference. We are so thankful to God for their care for us.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.