03 July 2014

won't you be my neighbor?

Since we live near a market, we often see the same folks every single day - the employees in the three dukas in front of our house, the woman who sells mandazi, Tanzanian doughnuts, our neighbors, the older woman selling charcoal. The list goes on. 

And as is custom, we have to greet every single one of them, every time we walk by. To be honest, it was starting to grate on my Americanness.

Every morning, I pass by the same family sitting under an umbrella, as they wait to sell their daily wares. And every morning, we have the same exact conversation.

Me: “Shikamoo! Hello to an elder!”

Them: “Marahaba! Hello from an elder! How’s your morning?”

“Good! How is work?”

“Peaceful. Are you going to work?”


“Okay, see you later!”

“See you!”

Let me tell you, it is the Exact. Same. Thing. At first, it was charming, especially as we were just learning the language. Now, unfortunately, my Americanness has stepped in a bit. In the morning and in the evening, I’m just trying to get from Point A to Point B. I allot enough time for me to get from my doorstep to my office… and that’s about it. And although it’s nice to be greeted, I was starting to get weary of the same conversation every day. Did it matter if we knew exactly what the other person was going to say?

So I know this sounds horrible, but if I was in a rush (as I usually am), I would go a different route so as not to see these folks. Or I would walk on by. I know! It’s terrible!

Then, one day, I had a break through. I was walking by the older woman selling charcoal near my route to work and I decided to go through the conversation dance with her, as I hadn’t done so in a few days. We went through the routine with nothing unusual being said and I went to walk away.

Asante!” she yelled out. “Thank you!”

“Why?” I yelled back. “Had I missed something?” I thought. “I definitely haven’t agreed to buy anything from her, have I?”

“Thank you for greeting me!” she yelled back.

Whoa. That hit me like a ton of bricks.

Tanzanians are so built on relationship and community that every encounter with someone is an opportunity to do just that… to build another relationship, to build more community. To me, the conversations seem like the same ol’, same ol’, with no real “point.” But the greeting is the whole point to the Tanzanian!

This woman doesn’t even know my name and I don’t know hers, but because we’ve had the same conversation upwards of thirty times, I bet you she would say that we’re friends. Or at the least, we have some kind of relationship.

So yet again, I’m learning how to adapt. Now, I build conversation time into my schedule, making sure that I’ll have the opportunity to stop by everyone’s place, be it a home or a shop, and greet them, if even for a few minutes. My American self is happy, because I still have a schedule, and my new quasi-Tanzanian self is happy, knowing that I’m building trust and relationship with those around me.

Working out the kinks of this new schedule has also allowed me to reflect on our not-so-wonderful habit, as Americans, to not know our own neighbors. Sure, we claim that we’re a really friendly culture and being from the Midwest, I would certainly stand by that. Unfortunately, though, we’re not very good at reaching out to those outside of our comfort zone, be it a neighbor, a co-worker, or someone we sit next to at church every week.

Michael and I have commented on the fact that we have lived in our current house for less than two months, and yet, we can name most of the neighbors and beyond that, we can recognize many of those who work in the market right outside our door. And let’s be honest, many more recognize us, for obvious reasons! Compare that to our apartment in Dallas, where I’m sad to admit, we lived for over four YEARS and we can’t name one single neighbor. Not one! That’s pretty bad, right?

As an homage to the adjustment Michael and I are making, I encourage my fellow Americans out there to step outside your comfort zone this week and get to know someone who’s a part of your everyday life, be it a new co-worker, the woman sitting next to you on the subway, or your neighbor who decides it’s appropriate to chop wood at 6:30AM every day, with no respect for weekends! No takers? That’s just us?

Mr. Rogers, a very American fellow, encouraged us to be good neighbors. The Tanzanians certainly are. Let’s try it.


  1. Dear Ashley,
    This is a beautiful insight. It is very inspiring and touching.
    May I suggest something? We pray the same Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be everyday, right? I think that you might consider the morning greetings as your morning prayer. May God bless you both.
    Take good care of yourselves,
    Tino Nhan

    1. Hey Father Tino, Thanks for your lovely comment! I will definitely try to start thinking of my greetings as just that. Happy Fourth to you as well!


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