Tanzanians draw their gender roles and distinctions in all kinds of different places to us in Australia. They call themselves a patriarchal society, but women have freedom in places where they don’t in the west.
So when our friend Isaac got married to Jema on the weekend, there was no symbolism of the father walking the bride down the aisle and handing her over to the groom. However, there was still a part in the liturgy where the minister asked for Jema’s parents to stand and present her, and her father did so. But at the start Jema and Isaac started at opposite ends of the aisle and danced towards one another and met in the middle. Isaac then lifted Jema’s veil and they processed to the front together. No parents involved there.
The sermon was on being a ‘helper’. It was directed at both Isaac and Jema, not only at the bride. The focus was on Genesis and it being ‘not good for the man to be alone’. Perhaps Swahili’s lack of gendered pronouns help here, but this was taken to be a statement about humanity, that is that we belong in community. God’s plan for humanity is that we would help one another. In this sermon on being a helper, Eve was barely mentioned.
It wasn’t as explicit as making Eve the archetype for humanity, but when the minister moved on to give a biblical example of what it is to be a helper, he again chose a woman: Abigail (1 Samuel 25). She was the example for both partners of what it means to be a helper, and it seemed that this was rooted in compensating for one another’s weaknesses or deficiencies.
The mutuality of this sermon did not equate into mutual submission. Isaac promised to love and protect; Jema promised to love and obey. But against this patriarchal backdrop, the sermon proclaimed an equality of a different nature: both need one another equally, because men and women need one another equally.
This is why a woman is not just an example to the women, but an example to both. It is not just Jema who needs Abigail’s example, but Isaac too. Living in community and helping one another, is not essential to women only, but to humanity.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.