What might be blindingly obvious to a westerner is less clear to a Tanzanian, but it goes back the other way as well.
I skyped with a homegroup in Adelaide recently and I was saying that one of the ways in which we are cultural babies in Tanzania is that we often assume people are being honest with us. We come across as horribly naive that when someone tells us their father has died, we take them at their word. Any Tanzanian knows you ask 10 or 15 follow up questions to establish the truth of this claim or to catch them in a lie. As I was explaining this, one of the homegroup members said she thought that was a terrible thing in Tanzanian culture, that you couldn’t trust anyone. How do you build relationships in that kind of environment? It must be exhausting!
It is exhausting for us, but then, there are things about our culture that many Tanzanians find exhausting and even morally wrong. For many Tanzanians, our obsession with time and being on time is utterly draining. Tanzanians are perfectly fine interrogating someone to discover the truth of their claim, but ask them to turn up on time and it’s another thing altogether. Even those in the university world who extol the virtues of ‘time management’ find practising it a huge task. Many perceive westerners to be ruled by time – is the sun the crown of creation or are humans? We come across not only as uptight, but as impatient, and uncaring about relationship for the sake of our arbitrary rules. Count how many of the fruit of the Spirit we westerners contravene with this attitude!
Now, I might say that being on time is a way to love people; equally a Tanzanian may respond that asking a person 10 or 15 questions gives them the chance to prove their integrity to you. There are good dimensions in both of these cultural attitudes, though they jar when you cross-cultures. It’s not about right or wrong. As we say so often, it’s just different. So as westerners living in Tanzania, we learn to ask lots of questions, and when someone turns up on time, we recognise what a massive act of love towards us that is on their part.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.