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.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.