We have just been in Australia for 6 months, sharing about what we’re doing in Tanzania, and what we’re learning from Tanzanians. For example, we’ve shared about how hierarchy in Tanzania is different from in Australia, and how enriching it can be to open to those different ways of doing things.
And then, four days after we arrived back in Tanzania, an older neighbour came to our house.
Welcome back, she said. And then spent half an hour dressing me down about how the trees in the garden has grown too many and too tall.
I confess I was a little taken aback. Her scolding of me did not seem reasonable, or warranted. We had only just arrived, and had been unable to monitor any tree situation while we were away. The trees she was concerned about falling on the roof were nowhere near the house, and had no large branches. However, they serve an important function, providing shade and keeping the house much cooler.
At first, I tried to politely offer these explanations. But that is my Australian egalitarian brain at work, where the assumption is that everyone is on a level playing field and we can have a discussion. I worked it out after a while, and changed tack, thanking her for taking the time to come by and to give me the instructions, and saying we would follow them.
Of course what I wanted to say under my breath is “even though none of this makes sense or is my fault.” But that’s almost irrelevant. Here was an older person from the community telling me what to do. My job is to obey.
If this is galling to you, Aussie friends, let me say, I understand! It took me another good half an hour to be calm enough internally to return to the online training I was doing. I had not been treated fairly, and certainly not kindly, even though she was very softly spoken. And of course, this injustice is tiny compared to what many Tanzanians face every day. They also are frustrated by it, or, more often, resigned to it.
So, in all this, why have we been saying that Aussies ought to be open to learning from less egalitarian cultures? It’s all very well if the person above you is fair and kind, but isn’t hierarchy open to abuse?
One reason is that it works on our feelings of entitlement. A Sudanese friend once said to me that one of the drawbacks of democracy is that we think we control our world: “You Australians, you think you can vote for the sun not to rise!” Now, he was a fierce proponent of democracy, but he could also see how western lifestyles of comfort and egalitarianism produce people who expect life to always go their way. These are people who ask, “Why doesn’t God do what I want him to? Why doesn’t God do what I think is right?” Do you recognise yourself in those questions? I do! We find it hard to trust God because we are always used to having a say.
Submitting to an unfair dressing down, is a discipline of humility. I did not like it. I did not think it was right or fair. But I can see a positive byproduct, that is, an opportunity to exercise humility, to not press for my rights, and to entrust myself to God. That’s the theory at least!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.