Woman: What are you carrying? Wait, listen, I’ve got some questions about this. Look, I have a problem in my life. Tell me, what can I do about this? What’s your advice?
Tamie: Well, here’s the context…
Woman: No, listen, just tell me straight. This is my problem. What exactly do I need to do?
Tamie: Okay, let me show you…
Man: Thank you for telling this sister these things. Normally wazungu (white people) keep these things to themselves and don’t share about it, but you have given your knowledge to us. You have done something so beautiful and kind.
It could be a delicious textbook example of sharing the ‘good news’.
Well, in a way it was.
Except the woman’s problem was her tummy size, and the good news was Tamie’s know-how for core strength.
Tamie was carrying some new exercise gear into another department store and was required to surrender it at the door. That’s when the retail assistant struck up a conversation that ultimately resulted in Tamie demonstrating a plank on the shop floor with several eager onlookers.
When Tamie returned to claim her gear, the group had grown, and was still discussing it.
There are so many fascinating dimensions here.*
- The belief that wazungu (white people) are modern and progressive and know better than us. (Really?)
- The belief that wazungu are healthy and know everything about fitness. (Seriously?)
- Usiri (concealment/secrecy). Wazungu have access to knowledge that we don’t have. Sharing some of that knowledge is an act of unusual kindness.
- Dirt-averse. Getting down on the floor is something Tanzanians are highly uncomfortable with. Not only have you condescended to tell us, you have actually demonstrated it!
Often it doesn’t occur to us that knowledge is power, and so we don’t consider the ways in which we might be holding power, or in a position to divest ourselves of it.
Yet the perception that wazungu are withholding knowledge sounds strange to us, inclined as we are to see white people as spraying their ‘help’ around all the time. But what kind of help do people want? Gender equality, sanitation and water access might be the causes of choice for white people, but maybe Tanzanians want to know what’s actually important to wazungu: the working knowledge that wazungu use in their everyday urban lives.
Those shop assistants are all watu wa kisasa (urbanised Tanzanians). Yet they don’t feel they possess the full complement of busara (wisdom) for urban life. They are living in between kijiji and mji (village and town). They no longer have the full range of village knowledge their ancestors had, but neither do they have the full city knowledge. Their bodies reflect this: they are not adept at farm labour, but neither do they practice fitness as good urbanites are thought to do.
Where this seems especially complicated to us is that these things are primarily caught, not taught. This kind of wisdom accumulates over time as you imbibe it from your entire culture and receive it throughout your whole upbringing. Honest hard work is not enough to guarantee this kind of knowledge; it is something your children or your children’s children might eventually pick up. Being a first-generation urbanite is a very vulnerable place to be in.
As strange as it might seem, a bit of core strength really can be good news.
* (This post is my roundup of Tamie’s thoughts)
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.