An expat friend who has lived in Tanzania longer than I have mentioned the other day that she had been asked for the Swahili for ‘comfortable shoes’ and had found it weird. There’s a literal translation you can make (viatu vya kustarehe) except no one would ever say that. You might have good shoes (viatu vizuri) but they’re generally functional not comfortable. Even the idea of assessing something according to its comfort is a bit weird here.
Not so in the western world, with our move towards a pleasure/pain worldview. Comfort is key to how we make decisions; we seek to avoid and minimise pain even if it has long term consequences (ahem, over-consumption of the earth, ahem). If you ask many people about their goals in life, being comfortable is likely to be one of them. The Australian Dream reveals this as well though it is fast vanishing: the quarter acre block with decent employment, independence and freedom to shape life how you want. So does our interest in retirement and superannuation, this idea that at some point you stop and enjoy life rather than continuing to strive.
Not so in Tanzania. I asked another friend yesterday for her definition of mafanikio – the Swahili word most commonly translated ‘success’. I was expecting a holistic description of the good life but that was not what she gave me. She defined success as a process… not a state in which you find yourself. Success to her was about striving forward not about reaching a point where you can enjoy the fruits of your labour. It is a mindset that leads you to be smart about how you do things and put in effort.
She was adamant – you must never stop striving. You do not say, ‘I have reached this level now and fulfilled my goals.’ There is always a next level. In Tanzanian thought, there is no such thing as plateauing; being content with your current situation is a recipe for losing it because you are not pressing ahead to the next thing. Plateauing is akin to giving up.
Tanzanian theologians find real biblical justification too: God created people to fill and increase in the earth. If you stop being a part of this, you are not living within the plan of God for humanity. This is why pursuing success is a moral obligation in Tanzania. In this understanding, the opposite of success is not poverty or a lack of something but despair.
Perhaps this sounds exhausting to you, a never-ending cycle of striving. It does to me! But on the other hand, it relieves the pressure because there is no way to fail as long as you keep going. It’s not like you get to the end of your life and realise that you haven’t got the lifestyle you wish you had; instead you can get to the end of your life and say, “I fought a good fight.”
To return to the shoe analogy, you’re not looking for The Ultimate Comfortable Pair of Shoes because you’re not thinking about how to increase your comfort. You might not even think much about your shoes because they’re just tools that enabled you to keep pressing forward.
I want to think about this more and ask some more questions. I wonder how this interacts with eschatology for example: do Tanzanians have fewer cultural obstacles to the generative aspects of the new creation or is the new creation where they finally get to rest? Or theology of work – I remember an Old Testament lecturer of mine arguing that in the Bible work and rest are not opposites; instead, the dipole is more like frustrated work and joyful work. And, having been a woman in western Christianity for some time, I’ve heard lots about contentment: I wonder how Tanzanian women read those same passages or how that kind of teaching sounds to them.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.