My post office adventures are turning into a bit of a thing! This one is about our local post office, on campus at St John’s not the big one in town. Our campus post office is tiny, with just one worker, and the worker has changed again. First there was kindly Hilda who encouraged us in our Swahili and would drop by to give us our packages. Then there was the lady who wouldn’t fix our PO box. Not exactly accommodating or friendly, but nothing on the perversity of our current post office lady.
So this one day, I arrived at the post office. The last time I’d been there she’d told me off because I’d gone straight to check our PO box without greeting her properly first. So this time, I greeted her straight up.
Her: ‘Why are you here talking to me before you look in your box? Do you expect me to do everything for you?’
Me, blankly: ‘You want me to go to the box first?’ [Seriously? That was what I got in trouble for last time!]
Her: ‘Do you not understand Swahili? That’s what I just said!’
Me: [nothing, mind racing. Maybe I did misunderstand her Swahili?]
Her, in English: Look box first, then speak to me.
I realise I did understand her. This is not a problem with my Swahili! So why is she being so impatient with me? Why is she being so rude? Why is she being so sarcastic?
The penny drops.
This is an animist culture. It’s a world where you are at the mercy of often capricious spirits and higher powers.
If you have power (by, say, being an older person or an official) it’s up to you how you wield it. The notion of using your power or privilege to serve others doesn’t make sense, because after all, you are also at someone or something’s mercy. She’s toying with me, and not in a fun way, simply because she can.
Everything within me wants to protest. I want to explain to the post office lady that I was just trying to do what she asked me to and that I was confused by her inconsistency, not because I don’t understand Swahili. But my intentions or actions are irrelevant.
I go home feeling angry, powerless and humiliated. I have been treated unjustly and I know it.
I am not used to being treated this way. My cultural background is predicated on the idea of rights, and right and wrong. I expect that irrespective of status, I should be able to explain my side of the story.
That’s because I come from a legal culture, where the issue is what is right and what is wrong. Tanzania is a fear/power culture, where things are sorted out according to who has the most power or status, not according to who is right or wrong. This grates on me. I want to scream, ‘It’s so unfair!’
Of all the privileges we have given up to be here in Tanzania, this is the one that hurts most of all.
I think it frustrates me even more because I have known something different.
Yet, for many people in Tanzania, including I suspect, the post office lady, this is simply how the world is. You just accept it; that’s your role in life. You have no power and no voice. That might make you angry but what can you do?
One thing you can do is look for a magic solution.
The prosperity gospel may seem absurd to westerners, and we wonder why people pursue it. But to a Tanzanian, other efforts can often produce nothing. Perhaps there’s no rain for your fledgling crop. Perhaps a corrupt police officer wants a bribe to get you off a trumped up charge, and you have no faith that going to court will vindicate you. Perhaps it’s discovering that despite the scrimping and saving and hard work at university, you simply can not get a job. Perhaps you’re just worn out by constant humiliation at the hands of those who are more powerful.
Is it any wonder the prosperity gospel takes off? If all the higher powers you have experienced are capricious, isn’t that what you expect God to be like as well? This is where the Christian notion that God has set the world up in certain good ways — what we call prosperity talk rather than prosperity gospel — is so powerful. It’s the idea of a loving Father, who is generous to all, and invites us to be active participants in his good world. Being a passive recipient or a powerless non-recipient are both deeply de-humanising.
We have talked about student ministry as producing leaders who will serve others. Perhaps you can see how radical that is in Tanzanian culture! It’s not just about politicians or government leaders either, but about officials at every level: businesspeople, teachers, administrators and bureaucrats, pharmacists and nurses… and post office ladies! The prosperity gospel is a theological issue, but in order for the theology refuting it to make sense, we must be able to offer a different vision. University graduates can be part of creating this alternative, by being benevolent with their power, hearing those whom others dismiss, and to treating people who have long been denied it with justice and compassion.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.