Menu Home

Cross-cultural dimensions to death and grief

Every morning on the way back from dropping Elliot at school I stop and talk with some ladies selling food on the side of the road. Recently we have been discussing the Nigerian ‘Man of God’ TB Joshua. They are convinced that he can offer healing to Red Twin, if he prays for her, or if she visits him, or receives a handkerchief touched by him. They tell me we must have faith, and that she will be healed.

The expression of faith

The immediate cross-cultural conflict here appears to be a belief in the supernatural and healing. My cultural background inclines me to see TB Joshua as a charlatan who profits from peddling false hope to vulnerable people. And my theological background is suspicious of figures who seem to supplant people’s confidence in Jesus by emphasising their own power. Especially when healing now is emphasised to the exclusion of facing death.

This is what it feels like with the maandazi ladies. They have shut me down every time I have said anything about prognosis or life expectancy. They tell me, ‘Usikate tamaa’, do not despair. They refuse to allow me to even canvass the possibility of death, instead imploring me to have faith.

The thing is, I don’t see anticipating death as unfaithful. Quite the opposite. I see acknowledging death as a faithful response. It is a confidence that the cross and resurrection of Christ mean that death has indeed lost its sting, and we are safe whether in death or life.

Attitudes to risk

This difference may well be a theological manifestation of a risk averse culture vs a risk tolerant culture.

My culture is risk averse. We anticipate and plan in order to head off issues. And when we sense they are inevitable, we prefer to anticipate and plan to minimise the damage. So we do everything we can to prevent death, but once it is impending, we feel the need to prepare ourselves for it, especially emotionally.

Risk tolerant cultures like Tanzania do not see the point in dealing with an issue until it is before them, and then they throw themselves into it. They have the same confidence in security in Jesus, but they only get to it after the person has actually died. Having an expectation of death is getting ahead of yourself unnecessarily, and I can see how it looks like fatalism, or giving up hope.

Recently Arthur had a similar conversation that helped to make sense of this. A colleague was asking when we’ll next be in Australia, because he wants us to get him some good quality sunglasses. Arthur was saying we’re due for home assignment in 2019, but that we expect to be back some time in the next year for Red Twin’s funeral.

Our colleague was like, “Whoa there! We don’t say someone is going to die!”

It’s the same reaction as the maandazi ladies. Another colleague explained, we never expect that a person will die until they do. This is not just famous African lack of planning or foresight. It’s as though saying the words of acknowledging death has invocational power.

As they discussed it a little more, the first colleague said that perhaps you could make an objective prediction, but this is never to be an expectation. As if once you expect death, you no longer resist it, or have given up on God to rescue you from it. It’s possibly akin to how many terminal patients report feeling when people start talking about them in their presence rather than to them. It feels premature.

Individual vs collective

Of course for an Australian, it doesn’t feel premature, it feels like good preparation. But I wonder whether we need more preparation than Tanzanians? Our culture spends a good deal of energy avoiding death and sanitising it, from our supermarket culture which divorces meat from animal death, to our anti-ageing obsession to our euphemistic and sanitising language around death. The average Tanzanian sees much more of death than your average Australian. Perhaps this means that they are collectively more prepared for it than we are?

Our colleagues didn’t seem to think this held true on an individual level though. Tanzanians have a mourning period (msiba) of several days to express sympathy at the death of a loved one, and this involves being together, first in large groups, then in smaller family groups (tanga ndugu), often at the home of the bereaved, who is consequently also host. Though money is donated to cover the costs, personal grief is delayed while these ceremonies take place. In contrast, in Australia it’s pretty much obligatory to bring around a meal to a bereaved person, but the idea is to be as unobtrusive as possible, and to leave them to their personal grief. Public mourning like a funeral and wake is one day, not several, as the family needs their space.

Perhaps it is the case that our strengths lie in our particular place on the spectrum of collectivism and individualism, or being risk averse or risk tolerant, or of faith as anticipation and practicality, or as belief in a hidden power.

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

Tagged as:

Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

5 replies

  1. Hi Tamie,
    Appreciate this thoughtful article having just read a book The Way We Die Now by Seamus O’Mahony, a realisitc appraisal of how we in the West do (or do not) handle death.
    Have been praying for you as I can’t begin to imagine how hard it must be to be so far away from your Red Twin. When my mother died I was much comforted that we both still remained alive ‘In Christ’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: