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“Tanzanians don’t have savings” isn’t quite right

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.

Categories: Culture Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

5 replies

  1. I’m finding this interesting. I have not yet noticed this here. (Our money interactions seem to be an advance payment of money owing, or borrowing money in a context where they will earn it back thru not being paid that week/ month). How do you know what to give? Is it based on who is asking, or what you earn?  Do you ever ask back to show that you value your friends?  I read an article on the missio mum’s group about a guy who asked locals for money and it meant they trusted him, because HE NEEDED THEM.  Would love to hear any further thoughts.  I really hope I can make cultural observations one day, lol. Patience Sam!

    Sent from my Samsung Galaxy smartphone.

    1. I read the same article. I think the main way we’ve done it is by choosing to ask help from Tanzanians rather than expats, even though it’s way less efficient. We make ourselves vulnerable, and put ourselves in their debt, thereby involving ourselves with them. They see it as honouring, we see it as alleviating some of the awkwardness around our wealth. It recognises that what we have in money they have in know-how and help. Though they feel the awkwardness much less than we do because they have a different theology of money.

      With loans, etc with staff we do it as an advance and no extra but with friends and colleagues we give loans. Most often they are not repaid, though we were pleasantly surprised recently by one that was. We give gifts too. Sometimes it’s not clear whether something is a loan or a gift. We’re still learning about how this works. One thing we’ve learned is that the onus is on the loaner to follow up and claim from the borrower.

  2. PS Thinking about reciprocity in the Bible and in patronage cultures has helped me with this. John Barclay’s book ‘Paul and the gift’ was recommended to me but I’m yet to read it.

  3. How does Christian Tanzanian culture deal with Jesus’ statement that it’s better to help someone who can’t help you back?

    I reckon it’s a pride trap in the West, because it’s often virtue-signalling and a humblebrag about our independence at the same time.

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