I was at a Christian seminar on parenting with Tanzanian peers. The facilitator made the argument that your first priority must be
- your spouse
- your children
and only after that, your career or money or anything else.
This stuff makes sense to me. I am in a highly companionate marriage, from a society that values companionship in couple relationships. For example, Tim Keller’s book on marriage argues that at its biblical heart, marriage is friendship. I am also used to the idea of priorities. It’s normal in western cultures to break down the elements of a system and rank them in terms of importance. The things down the bottom are not ignored until the top things are sorted, but it helps to work out what and you want to give attention to and how.
However, the Tanzanians I was learning alongside took issue with this teaching.
One woman observed that for many Tanzanian Christians, husband and wife live away from one another for long periods of time. These are people who want the best for their family, especially their children’s education, and so they make great sacrifices to work in high-powered jobs that take them away from their families. She asked, ‘Are you saying I’m not committed to my marriage if I do this?’ She pointed out that she and her husband would make the decision together, with their combined finances, for the good of their family. ‘Are you saying I’m making my children an idol?’ The facilitator replied that it was a biblical principle for husbands and wives plan for regular quality time together.
Later on another participant piped up. “I think the priority should go God, money, then your wife!” This drew laughs, because it sounds outrageous on the surface, but as he unpacked it, more and more people were nodding. He argued that many marital problems are caused by the pressures of lack of money, and even though almost all middle-class Tanzanian women work, the burden to provide lies on the man. He must prioritise money if he is to care for his wife and his marriage. The facilitator did not see the issue. He said wealth or poverty had nothing to do with whether or not you spend time with your wife. You can do that as a rich person or a poor person.
The facilitator struggled to address the concerns of the group other than to tell them they were contrary to biblical principles. He holds a theological education, but it is from the UK, where the Bible has been read in terms that make sense to westerners. It’s no wonder that his biblical principles for marriage and parenting align so well with western marital ideals. However, they have little to offer in a society that values holism over segmentation, unity over priority, and is grappling with what it means to flourish against the background of poverty.
Understand that I am not saying that companionship is not a key component of a theology of marriage. What I’m saying is that western theologies of marriage are ill-equipped to deal with the questions about companionship that are raised by a Tanzanian context, with the baggage and connotations that go along with it.
The woman who spoke about husbands and wives living apart grew up in a village herself, speaking a tribal language, not even Swahili and certainly not English. Yet today she is a lawyer with a doctorate and sends her daughter to one of the best international schools. What an extraordinary journey in just one generation! It has flow-on effects too. This family contributes generously to Christian ministry both financially and interpersonally. Yet, this kind of prosperity in its fullest sense does not just happen. It takes sacrifice and hard decisions. I can see how telling someone like her that a husband and wife must take the lesser-paid jobs in order to spend quality time together sounds like holding people back, if not the whole community.
Yet, she was not arguing with the facilitator so much as trying to work out how she could apply what he was saying, and integrate it into her theological framework. She doesn’t want a theology that confirms what she’s already doing; she’s prepared to be changed and critiqued by Scripture, if only theological reflection on it intersected with her context.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.