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My ’emotional life of Tanzanians’ theory, and animism

A while ago, I floated a theory about the emotional life of Tanzanians. It went something like this:

the hierarchical nature of society in Tanzania means people do not get practice at identifying and expressing their emotions, because they are expected to repress them and obey those who are over them. Those who have people under them are undisciplined with their emotions because they have had not had practise with them when lower down the ranking, and thus they can appear capricious.

The other day a colleague was talking about how beneficial it is to identify emotions and work them through, and yet how difficult it is for her, and culturally uncomfortable. It was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I ran my theory past her. She confirmed it as accurate, and helped me to see that this extends to and intersects with prayer. Even if you could identify your emotions, you cannot express them to God.

In fact, expressing your emotions to God is seen as disrespectful. Because emotions do not travel up the hierarchy, they must not be expressed to God, who is obviously right at the top. To do so would be inappropriate for the solemnity prayer deserves.

I asked her, why is it then that African prayer seems so emotional, at least to western eyes? There is so much shouting, and movement, and even crying. Her reply was that this emphasis is to give strength to what a person says, because all they have is request. If you are unable to express how you feel to God, the only outlet for your concerns is to come before him and ask him for what you need, over and over, louder and louder.

Expressing your emotions to God is also seen as rebellious against Him. He is in control, and he is good, so if you are unhappy with the way things are, you are saying that the way he has ordained things is not good. This aligns with what I have been learning about the absence of lament in Tanzanian Christianity.

I have tended to think of the animistic backdrop to Tanzanian faith as fundamentally egocentric, that is, manipulating God or the spirits in order to have my needs met. However, this emotional lens suggests a different angle, that one’s self and especially one’s emotions, are to be suppressed when approaching God. It’s actually driven by theocentrism, by a desire to rightly approach God, who is at the top of the hierarchy. To do so requires a massive denial of one’s emotional self.

I’m now leaning towards seeing the Tanzanian emphasis on asking God for things, and trying to do so in the right way, as a misguided or unhealthy theocentrism. That is, of reading God to be ‘like all the other gods’, and relating to him in that way, rather than as a personal God, before whom we have an advocate, who is our brother.

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

4 replies

  1. We see this a lot in Asian culture too (we’ve noticed lots of similarities in the past when discussing this too ;) ). One thing that I’ve seen as both central and unique with counselling is taking on a “parent” role with the person you are counselling, which I think provides a much healthier view of God. We are often taught to suppress or ignore certain emotions. The whole point of counseling is questioning why we are having them, and using them as a part of the bigger picture, especially in how we are to love the other. E.g. Am I feeling angry? Yes. Why? Because my brother just hit me! Ok, is that anger just? Yes! But how can I help my brother grow to more christ-like-ness? Will hitting help? No? Then…talking? Going to a higher authority? Either way, God wants to hear how I feel but also see how I use that emotion to better love.
    As a counselor I need to travel with the person I’m talking to. I’ve had emotional responses of horror and repulsion when people tell me what they’ve done and sometimes those emotions have been right and good, and sometimes they’re a reflection of how that person feels about themselves. None of them are always right, but they can be guides to get to the right place.

    When we suppress emotion to play the right tools, we lose the chance to gain mastery and experience with those feelings. When we don’t tell God about them we don’t have His truth, light or spirit sifting the chat from the wheat….

  2. Your post reminded me of Ps 135:15-18. I think this is a tendency of all our theology. However, it seems more poignant in this case.

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