We have been in Tanzania 5 years. Which, since we said we’d come for about 10 puts us at the halfway mark. Yikes! Cos it feels like we haven’t really done anything yet!
This is exactly what we expected of course. CMS talks to its workers about their 3 year terms kind of like this: first term you’ll be pretty useless, even when you think you’re seeing things clearly, but that’s OK because the focus is learning; towards the end of second term you’ll start to hit your stride; in your third term you’ll actually make a contribution. A massive investment of 6 years in order to be effective and fruitful for the following 3+ years, is an indication of the complexity of working cross-culturally in a way which is dignifying for all. This is why is it so vital for CMS to foster the identity of learner in its workers.
This kind of learning can be pretty humiliating, not just because at first you can’t do practical things like buy peanut butter (because you work that out pretty quickly!) but because you continue to be socially inept as well, like when it takes 5 years to work out a joke. 5 years of living away from my home country feels to me like 5 years of incompetence. Speaking with others, it sounds like that feeling never really goes away, so it’s worth pausing for a moment to take note of what we have actually learned.
I’ve been recording our learnings since we arrived, but here are some big picture learnings.
- We’ve learned Swahili – sort of. The problem with saying this in the past tense is that complete mastery of a language is elusive. We still do conversation classes in order to keep improving. On the phone I am frequently mistaken for a Kenyan: in other words, my Swahili is fluent, but not perfect!
- We’ve definitely learned things about how to learn a language! Immersion is easily the best way, but we have had to seek out opportunities for Swahili immersion. Maybe if we were in a village context it would have been different, but it has not been the case that living in a country where Swahili is the common language has meant we have ‘picked it up’. We have had to take the initiative and work really hard. Experimenting has been really important, trying one thing for a bit and then something else.
- We’ve learned who we want to work with, why, and what we want to do with them. Perhaps you think we should have known this before we came, and we were invited by Tanzanians for a specific role. But we were also encouraged to be open-minded, because the opportunities for white people in Tanzania are endless: you can do anything you want, supported by Tanzanians, but that doesn’t mean what you’re doing is particularly useful, or dignifying for Tanzanians. At the first role we came to, we were given the chance to set up our own student ministry, to teach students the Bible and mentor them for leadership in church and society; instead, Arthur now works as ‘staff coach’, behind the scenes building the capacity of a group of Tanzanians that is already seeking to do those these things.
- We’ve had our understanding of Tanzanian theology radically re-shaped, especially with regards to prosperity and the prosperity gospel. We’ve blogged extensively on that, but that really is just a start. There is much more to learn on this.
- We’ve learned how to wait. it. out. Some times you can actually see what needs to be done, but you have to wait for the next yearly cycle before you get a chance to suggest anything, but there’s still not enough time to get everyone on board, so you spend yet another year sowing seeds and having conversations and being present and patient.
- We’re learning to exercise faith that God has brought us here for a reason, because many days we think, “We are wasting our time and people’s resources.” Sometimes the best thing you can do to tolerate this is to go to bed because tomorrow is a new day, or go on a holiday and see how much of those feelings was actually just stress.
- We’ve learned a bit about how to move between Australia and Tanzania, and the enormous toll that takes on our family. Before we went to a missionaries’ conference in Nairobi recently, I prepped Elliot that there would be other kids there whose parents were from Australia but who live in Tanzania, and he did not get why that was special. That experience was not worth commenting on as unusual to him. I’m learning to see how the norms in his world are completely different to mine.
And we are still learning. The more you know about a culture, the more you see all there is that you don’t know.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.