28 September 2015

sharing is caring, right?

I was recently walking down the hill to our house, from buying groceries. I hadn’t brought quite enough plastic bags with me to hold all of the produce I wanted so I ended up carrying a bunch of bananas in my hand.

Big mistake. 

The five-minute walk back to the house seemed a lot longer, as strangers and neighbors alike shouted out to me, “Hey, you have a lot of bananas! Can I have one?” “Give me a banana!” “How come she has so many bananas?”

“Leave me alone!” I silently screamed. “These are my bananas!”

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened.

And every time it happens, I get so annoyed. “I bought these bananas,” I think to myself. “I took the time to walk up the hill, deal with people yelling ‘Mzungu!’ at me, haggle for these stupid bananas, and walk down the hill again. And with my own money! Don’t they think about that?”

Well, of course they don’t.

I was in church a few weeks back, and one of the readings had the following passage in it:

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions were his own, but they had everything in common. (Acts 4:32)

When I heard that, an image of every Tanzanian I had ever met popped into my head. From my vantage point, Tanzanians are crazy good at not laying claim to their possessions. From a young age, they are conditioned to share absolutely everything: food, clothes, their bed. I hear and see story after story that reminds me of this fact. Here are just a few.

At churches and celebrations, you’ll often see young girls in dresses or shoes that are too big for them. Often times, this signals that they woke up before everyone else in the household and because of that, they had first dibs on the clothes they wanted to wear. So naturally, they pick their big sister’s clothes, regardless of size, and Big Sister doesn’t get all that upset, because she’s used to sharing her clothes anyway.

Many of the secondary schools are boarding schools in Tanzania. Although every student is given their own bed, teachers will often find two or three students sharing a bed. It’s the first time in their life they’ve had their own bed, the teachers explain, and it feels strange to them to sleep alone.

Even when looking at the Kiswahili language, expressing that something is “mine” is massaged, made more polite for the listener. For example, you often refer to something as being “of the place where I am.” This leaves things a little ambiguous, kind of like saying, “Yeah, you can usually find that book wherever I am… but you may find a lot of other people in that same place as well!” Although it’s not this extreme nowadays, we have heard that as recently as twenty or thirty years ago, Tanzanians only referred to their name as their own. Everything else was open to debate.

So when Tanzanians ask me for the banana I’m carrying, I truly don’t think they realize it’s MINE. (Even though, let's be real, it is.) Because to them, it’s not. It’s not really anyone’s. It’s something to be eaten. I simply happened to be the person who bought it.

On one hand, Tanzanians and their ease of sharing are fodder for some serious guilt for an American like me. Relationships are so much more important to them than things. Giving money, food or time appears apparently effortless to Tanzanians. I’m reminded of this and try to learn from it almost every day that I live here. The communal culture of theirs is a beautiful image that is shown to us time and time again throughout the Bible, used to model love and care for one's neighbor.

On the other hand, when taken to the extreme, their aptitude for giving can have negative ramifications on society as a whole. For those Tanzanians who would like to rise up on the economic ladder, it’s very difficult, because as soon as you’re seen to have more than you need, your siblings, parents, friends, and neighbors are lined up at your door, asking if you’ll share with them. And technically, you’re obligated to do so because you never know when you’ll run into a bit of bad luck yourself and need to do the same thing.

In addition, it’s led to a culture of asking for things, just to ask. Before, people would only ask you for something if they really needed it: a banana or tea because they were hungry, work because they wanted to provide for their families. Now, everyone will ask you for everything, just because they’re hoping they’ll get lucky and you’ll say yes.

I have been asked for, I kid you not: 
- countless bottles of pop
- a reusable grocery bag
- eggs
- the earrings I’m wearing
- tea
- a used coloring book
- tweezers
- coffee
- my watch
- nail polish I’m wearing
- money
- and of course, bananas. 

The list goes on. At one time or another, Michael and I have been asked for anything and everything we were wearing and/or holding at that moment. 

As with all things, there’s a balance to this. I believe it exists somewhere between the extremes of the “This is mine!” culture that we find in the States and the sharing to the point of suffering that we find in Tanzania. How can we hold our possessions more lightly yet respect the needs and desires of those around us?

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