My language tutor and I have been discussing the roles of various people in society: women, men, children, etc. Last week we were discussing the role of elders.
Among other things, one proverb that came up was: Ashibaye hamjui mwenye njaa means ‘The full one does not know the hungry one’. The role of an elder is to advise younger people, but they are not to do this out of ignorance. As they share their advice, it is a two way relationship: the thing that is shared with them from the younger person is their pain and hardship. I liked that understanding and empathy is a part of what it means to be a good elder, and thought the two-way nature of it, with the younger person giving away part of their burden was quite beautiful.
If an elder does not effectively understand the person’s situation, and gives ignorant or poorly suited advice, the younger person is not relieved of their responsibility to respect and honour them. We have seen this in meetings where elders come in, knowing nothing of a situation, and speak harshly with those who are younger than them. Those who are younger are still expected to accept this, and to defer to it, thanking the elder for their advice.
That doesn’t mean that they will necessarily follow it! They are to genuinely approach elders with an attitude of learning, but if an elder is off the mark, later on you can discard their advice as long as you have been respectful to them. We’ve also seen that happen. The thing is, this seems a bit two-faced to us. You acting like you’re grateful for advice you actually think is rubbish! You take something you have no intention of following through on! You are one person on the outside, and one person on the inside and afterwards.
Are you, I asked my language tutor, suppressing your own feelings, in order to follow correct procedure and social mores? This is where she rebuked me. She said, we do not suppress our feelings; we are able to sit with them.
I had explained that we believe that expressing your feelings is healthy, that this means that you get rid of it from your system and are able to continue on. She largely saw this as emotional immaturity. It seems exhausting to me to have to curate an inside world and an outside world that are so different, to be burning with frustration inside and smiling on the outside – and not in a passive aggressive way either! She saw this as what it means to be a mature adult, that you are not ruled by your emotions or having to express them, but are able to handle the social mores and regulations with dexterity.
I’m sure psychologists will have plenty to say about both viewpoints, but for me, this was a rebuke about how easily I read another culture negatively. I was pleased to hear the language Tanzanians use to describe this behaviour. I felt like this gave me extra insight into my own culture as well, and how easily our individualism and desire for self-determination can appear immature or petulant to non-western eyes.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.