When you look at how Tanzanians manage money, it’s easy to conclude at first glance that they don’t have savings. To be sure, to have a savings account is still considered somewhat unusual. Even uni graduates and the middle class seem to have cash flow problems. It’s common for a worker to arrive and tell her employer she needs an advance of her wages, or she won’t have money for the bus the next day, for example.
One theory that’s been posited is that Tanzanians are still in a subsistence mindset. Their processes and cultural expectations are still shaped by their hand to mouth past (and present, for some), so they’re in the habit of spending straight away.
Or perhaps it’s due to the stereotypical African lack of planning. Do they simply buy now without thinking that the money might be needed for something later?
Or is it that keeping a savings account seems selfish? After all, if there’s someone in front of you right now asking for money, who are you to keep your money for a far-off or hypothetical rainy day.
Likely each of these things play a role, but I want to suggest that Tanzanians do in fact think about the future.
Consider this proverb:
Wema ni akiba. Goodness is a saving.
And its companion:
Akiba haiozi. Savings do not rot.
When Tanzanians need to fundraise (and they fundraise for everything from weddings to travel to school fees), they go around to everyone they know and ask them for a little bit. Everything adds up. Of course, the more people you have in your circle, the more people you can ask.
People give because they feel obligated. There’s a relationship there. Your goodness to them or their belief in your character pays off. Goodness is a saving.
In this sense, I think it’s fair enough to say that even Tanzanians who have no monetary savings do indeed save. But they save obligation rather than money itself. It’s like the money savings are in trust of the people they know until such a time as they call it in. (Which makes me think more about some of Jesus’ parables about money, like this one.) The emphasis is placed on being a good neighbour and in good stead with those around you, and this pays off for you down the track.
Arthur and I have from time to time noted that this makes sense in a corporate culture. Everyone gets to be involved in everything, rather than each person taking care of their own affairs, and it encourages harmony.
Of course, if you’re the person being asked, this is why your money doesn’t belong to you. You are in someone’s debt and that debt must be paid. This is why even wealthy people with large incomes and more western values about money can find it hard to pay school fees or set up a savings account. They are still part of a society where people are constantly coming to them and asking them for money. We have wondered what to do about this ourselves. In the end, we’ve just ended up budgeting a monthly amount for miscellaneous money that will be required of us.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.