12 June 2014

moral dilemmas and night guards.

Living in our own home has brought with it a whole set of new challenges that we didn't foresee. From sharing electricity with our neighbors to taking care of a dog, we are definitely faced with something new every day. Recently, it got a little tough with another one of those new relationships: the one with our night guard.

the guard's domain.
Not only have we learned a lot about employing a night guard in the last couple of weeks, we were also hit with a bit of a moral dilemma.

For those who don't know, Maryknoll Lay Missioners requires that all of us here in Tanzania employ a night guard. Unfortunately, yes, having a night guard means that we are at heightened risk from someone who would want to enter our property at night and take whatever they can. Of course, this could happen anywhere in the world! But because we stick out like sore thumbs in Mwanza, there's really no way to skirt around the issue.

So how does it work? 

The guard comes to the house every night and works twelve hours, sun down to sun up. In Mwanza, you can either employ a guard company or hire out a private guard. Before we bought our house, we met with a local guard service company to get a feel for them. We liked what we heard: their employees got one day off per week and at least 70% of our monthly bill ended up as salary in the guard's pocket (with the rest going to the guard company). And although the pay isn't good by our standards, it's a decent wage for those without the education or opportunities elsewhere to get a better job.

The first night that we slept in our new house, we met Joe (name intentionally changed here), the guard, in our compound. (The guard company has a key into our physical compound, so although they can't get into our home, they can at least get onto the premises when we're not around.) We liked Joe instantly. He was incredibly professional and showed us his notebook where he logged all of the possessions in our yard, so that he could check on everything during each one of his shifts. He showed up on time. He was even able to speak some English, which helped when we weren't able to explain ourselves in Kiswahili.

Maybe a bit naively, we dove into a relationship with Joe. Almost every evening when he showed up, we would go out in the yard to chat, learning about his wife and his six children. We learned he was from the Musoma area, where we went to language school, and we knew a bit about the traditions of his tribe. The relationship was working out really nicely. It felt great to go to bed feeling incredibly safe with Joe in the yard, looking out for us.

view of musoma.
A couple of weeks in, though, we hit a rough night. It started innocently. First, Joe showed up pretty late, which was completely unlike him. When we went out to check on him, he remarked that he had been held up because one of his children was sick. "Hamna shida," we said. "No problem." We left it at that.

Later that evening, I ventured out into the yard to give Joe our dog Noli's nightly meal. I noticed when I went out into the yard, I had to call out to tell Joe and tell him Noli's food was ready. Normally, Joe jumps out of his chair to see what we need. More disturbing was the fact that when I reached out to hand Joe Noli’s food, he patted me on the shoulder.

In American culture, this would be a completely normal occurrence. We are used to seeing couples exchange public displays of affection. When male and female friends pat each other on the back or even put their arms around one another, we don’t think too much of it. It seems pretty innocent. 

To a Tanzanian, though, this is completely outside their realm of what’s comfortable between men and women. Across the sexes, public displays of affection are in no way normal. Outside of a handshake, Tanzanian men and women, by and large, do not touch. Even in conversation, Joe always focused his attention on Michael, not on me.

This is why, when Joe touched me, a red flag went up. He didn’t pay much attention to what I said, let alone touch me!

I went back inside, mulling over this in my mind. At the same moment, Michael asked, “Do you think Joe has been acting strangely tonight?” Ding ding ding! We started sharing about our individual interactions with Joe and came to the sad fact: Joe had shown up to our home, his workplace, drunk.

At first, this was a relief. We had both separately been wondering what was going on and were thankful to find a reason, although not a great reason, for Joe's actions. This quickly faded into uncertainty about what to do next. Herein lies the moral dilemma. In less than two weeks’ time, our guard had shown up to work in not-great shape - he was drunk. How often would this actually happen? Was this a one-time occurrence? Or was this a common habit of his? Did we feel safe knowing that he was supposed to protect us, but in all reality, couldn’t be much protection when he wasn't sober? 

Almost as quickly as we resolved to call the guard company and demand a different guard, we started talking about his family situation. “He has six kids.” “How will we feel if he loses his job because of this?” “But I don’t feel safe!” “We all make mistakes. Maybe we should give him a second chance.” “What if one of us was here alone for the night while the other was traveling? How would we feel then?”

We talked about it for almost two hours, wondering what we should do.

Ultimately, Michael confronted Joe about it and he continuously denied that he was anything but normal. (Meanwhile, the way he was speaking was clearly proving otherwise.) More than anything, we wanted him to know that we knew. When he left the next morning, Michael made it very clear. He told Sylvest Joe er, “If you show up at our house again like you did last night, you will lose your job.” Done.

So we chalked it up to one bad day. Heck, maybe it was pay day. We didn’t know but we didn’t want the guy to lose his job because of it.

was it payday?
That same evening, we weren’t able to get home until around 8:30 PM. We nervously approached the house and banged on our gate, which lets Joe know that we’re home and that he should open the gate for us. No answer. We peeked through the gate. No sign of him. Noli heard the banging and came to the gate, barking madly. We yelled, “Joe! Tupo! We’re here!” Nothing. After we got inside, we saw his silhouette sitting in a dark corner of our yard. He wasn’t moving. We continued talking to him as we approached him, but it wasn’t until we were towering over him as he slept that he woke up. He yawned.

Did I mention it was 8:30 PM?

Another night and another range of emotions. At first, we were angry. We had warned him about his actions and we expected him to be on his best behavior that night. But no can do. Gradually, the anger turned to concern for Joe  We had recently heard a story of a guard who had fallen asleep on the job only to be killed by thieves who had entered the compound. 

The truth is that we are incredibly safe in our home. We have iron bars on all of our doors and windows to separate us from anyone who would want to get in, along with a dog who is a much better guard than any human could be. We started worrying about Joe's safety if we continued to allow him to, basically, be unfit for duty out of pity. Also, whether it’s right or not, we had learned from friends that Joe probably wouldn’t lose his job. The company would just reassign him to a different home or business.

We decided to request a different guard from our company and we hoped we were making the right decision.

This was a hard lesson for us to learn. We thought having a night guard was a simple employee-employer relationship but it’s more than that. You’re trying to balance their wellbeing with yours, recognizing all of the opportunities that you’ve had that they haven’t. You want to be friendly but you don’t want to be friends. But then, you feel bad for not wanting to be friends. Didn’t you come to Tanzania to be “with the people”? It’s not simple, not in the least. Moral dilemmas arise from all kinds of situations you wouldn’t expect. We’ve found this even means your relationship with your night guard.

In the meantime, Joe is still working. Just days after we requested a new guard from the company, citing our reasons, I watched him in his guard uniform, biking up a hill towards his next assignment.


  1. Having lived in 2 African countries already, I am sad to state that your experience is not that uncommon. Finding a good night guard (even one provided by a company) can be exceptionally difficult. Most of them start out fine but (for whatever reason) deteriorate over time. Of course, the fact that you can fire them and they end up (quickly) at someone else's compound does not help them in the long run. (I had a friend who ended up firing 3 night guards in about 2 weeks for sleeping on the job...)

    My suggestion? Pray that God will bless you with a guard who will genuinely care about his job because (in the long run) knowing that your compound is safe is not only important at night but also during the day.

    You made the right decision. Chances are "Joe" will land on his feet (at least in maintain his job) and, more importantly, you will have peace of mind.

    1. Thanks for your comment, D! You, along with many others who have lived in East Africa before, have helped to reassure us that this is a normal occurrence and that we made the right decision. As of now, we are on our fourth guard. Who knows how many we'll have before the year is out!