25 August 2014

can we be more than money?

I was running an errand in town this week and as I hopped off the daladala, a young street boy came up to me and started tapping me on the arm. “Dada, dada! Sister, sister!” he called, trying to get my attention.

I knew what would follow would be a plea for money. And yes, he definitely needed money. But I couldn’t even look him in the eye, let alone talk to him. I turned away quickly, down a side street and ignored his continuous shouts in my direction. 


Within minutes, I felt horrible. “Why didn’t I just respond to him?” I thought. “I didn’t need to give him money. I could have just spoken to him.” But even speaking to him, in that moment, seemed impossible. Why? Why did I completely ignore a perfectly polite street boy?

I’ve had a number of incidents like this recently where I felt the urgent need to disconnect from my surroundings. I was walking to work and was approached by a young Tanzanian man. From the beginning of his conversation with me, which to his dismay, turned out to be largely one-sided, I knew he was trouble. He started in on the usual set of questions. “Where are you going? What’s your name? What’s your phone number?”

I just didn’t have it in me to respond. Again, I wasn’t sure why. I stared straight in front of me and kept walking.

Frustrated, he said, “Fine, just give me 5,000 shillings.”

Now, 5,000 shillings is a little more than $3, so in the normal American world, this is not a lot of money. But that day, I was in no mood to handle it. I whipped my head around to face him and stopped walking. “Stop it!” I yelled at him. “I don’t want to talk to you! Leave me alone!”


I’m sure he regretted his attempt to converse with me.

Later that same day, I had a co-worker, a Tanzanian woman who has a job and receives a salary, ask me for help paying for her daladala ride home. As work ended that evening, I was so disheartened. I felt the need to escape, to be back home with Michael as fast as I possibly could.

That evening, I recounted for Michael all of these situations and my consistent reaction: avoidance. We talked about what was at the heart of this need for me to virtually ignore those around me, Tanzanians, who I thought I was called to be in relationship with for three and a half years. Michael asked me, “What bothers you the most about these situations you’ve had with Tanzanians where you haven’t been able to engage?”

I immediately responded, “I’m not a bank. I’m a human being.

And with that sentence, I knew exactly what’s been bothering me the most about life in Tanzania. Other than Michael, my fellow Maryknoll Lay Missioners, and a few ex-pats we’ve been lucky to get to know, I feel like nobody here truly knows me. After almost eight months, I don’t think one native Tanzanian knows anything about my personality, my hopes, my past, my dreams - nothing other than surface-level information. Instead of seeing me, it seems Tanzanians see an ATM machine, which they can attempt to use as they please. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t but there seems to be little use for me other than constant tries to get more cash. 


Do Tanzanians know this is how they make me, Michael, and virtually every other Westerner feel? No. I don’t think so. I don’t think they have any malicious intent when they ask us for a hand-out. Culturally, friendships in Tanzania are largely built on helping one another survive, which means helping each other financially. Also, there’s no harm in trying so they must think, “Why not ask?” But that almost makes it harder because it underlines the huge gap between our understanding of what a friendship should consist of and theirs.

Through these situations and conversations with Michael, I’ve come to understand more about myself and the culture from which I come. My inability to connect, at times, my need to get away is my self-defense mechanism. I intuitively know that a conversation will end with asking me for money, so I avoid the conversation. A friendship with that nice woman who makes us tea in the market is virtually impossible because within a few transactions, she’ll ask me for 10,000 shillings ($6), just because I’m a Westerner, so I’ll start going to another woman who sells tea. (True story.)

At the same time, this realization is helping me to learn my limits. I’m not Mother Teresa and I’m not the Dalai Lama. I don’t have the capacity to be a saint to everyone I meet, and although I hoped that would be the case, it’s okay that it’s not. But I do have the capacity to engage with some, even when I know they’ll end up asking me for money. We still welcome the neighborhood children into our yard, even though it means their parents now send these children over to ask us for money as well. We show Tanzanians we want to be a part of their community and their culture, but we will always be different.

If I want to be perceived as more of a human being and less of a bank, it’s up to me to continue to interact with those around me and to show them just that. No, I won’t pay for your sugar this week. I won’t give you money just for the heck of it. But I will try to listen. And I will keep trying.

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