04 April 2016

what i learned living in a slum.

If the statistics on our blog traffic tell me anything, it's that this is going to be one of those posts that maybe four people read. Oh well, I'll write it anyway. 

We live in a slum. Sometimes I have to remind myself of that simple fact by just repeating it aloud, especially on the most challenging days.

Our neighborhood of Mabatini in Mwanza, Tanzania can be described as a heavily populated informal arrangement of substandard housing lacking reliable sanitation, water or electricity services. Some of the homes are built from plywood, corrugated metal and sheets of plastic. Others were more professionally built but have deteriorated quite a bit. When it rains, the narrow streets of dirt quickly flood making the way not only impassable, but also littered with refuse. Mabatini is an area unknown by most expatriates and deemed a den of thieves by locals.

And it is here - in a community of the oppressed - that I have found Jesus the human person.

(Wait, what did he say?)

photo credit: mwanza tourism

We don’t normally write about Jesus, which perhaps is kind of strange given this blog is run by two Catholic lay missioners. But I’m saying his name here, so brace yo’ self people.

Before Ashley and I moved to Tanzania, I experienced and related to Jesus as God: an abstract, far-removed being who loves and forgives me despite me being a real monkey butt sometimes. But like most everything, being a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in Tanzania has changed all of that. A lot.

Now I experience and relate to Jesus the human person. Why? Because the teachings of Jesus and the way he related with others in the Gospels are not just things from the distant past, but are alive in the present moment the world over. Living in Tanzania has totally opened my eyes to that. Not because there are goats, lepers and dirty feet in need of washing (though it does help set the scene), but rather because I find myself immersed in the reality of life of the kind of people that Jesus sought out: the poor, sick and marginalized members of society.

Like I said, we live in a slum. (Oh, in case you want to check it out, these folks will give you a tour). Our neighbors are undoubtedly materially poor. Sickness and preventable deaths that go unprevented run rampant. And the young mothers I work with are set apart outside the community, seen as a burden and deemed to be without any value (those are their words). 

Waking, working, eating, praying, sleeping - living - in such a context has adjusted my perspective...dramatically. Because it is against such a backdrop that Jesus’ message resounds, and I have come to see that our community’s “inner thrust for liberation is not only consistent with the gospel but is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

So in other words, it’s gotten personal. 

The folks Jesus hung out with remind me of the people we hang out with - the people we live among and work alongside. And when it gets personal - when you immerse yourself in the life of an oppressed community - there is no going back. You cannot continue to think and feel the way you once did. You cannot feign ignorance. And we really don't need more ignorance. We need justice and equality. We need mercy.

Jesus preached a message of liberation - a preferential option for the poor. In the words of the Benedictine nun, Joan Chittister, "Unlike most of us who fear losing public approval, Jesus never flinched from calling either synagogue or state to be what they were meant to be - just, generous, merciful, and honest - to everyone. The question is, do we?"

In our lifestyle choices, work pursuits, civic action and consumer decisions, let's do the same.


  1. I read all your posts. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in northeast Rwanda 88-90, lived in Malawi 67-69, and have gotten to visit a fair number of African countries. Tanzanians and Malawians are very friendly and these are my two favorite countries. When you say "what I learned", you make it sound like you are done learning, though we know there is always more to learn and feel. Asante sana, Linda

    1. Great to hear you're an avid reader of our blog! It's also nice to hear from another American who spent several years in Africa. In our admittedly limited travels around the continent we, too, have seen that Tanzanians are particularly friendly people. You of course are right - the learning continues each and every day.

  2. Wow! Quite a turn! I would be interested in hearing what the people of the neighborhood are like in day-to-day encounters. Are they similar to or different from the people where you lived before? It sounds like the level of poverty is similar, but in much more cramped urban conditions, making life much harder.

    I googled your quote and found that it was from James Cone. Was that something you had read before but acquired new meaning now, or have you been reading him recently?

    Lastly, who would you say are the forces oppressing Tanzanians? Is it the Tanzanian government? The world economic system? James Cone is very specific about racist oppression in his essay, essentially white America enslaving black America. Is the situation similar in Tanzania?

    1. Most of the folks in the neighborhood are friendly and outgoing, which is true of most Tanzanians. Though petty crime is much more rampant in our neighborhood. I would say it has been a bit easier building relationship in our current neighborhood given there has been a Maryknoll presence in the community over the past fifteen years or so.

      You nailed it - what makes the present living situation most challenging is the especially cramped conditions, which brings lots of noise, garbage, etc. All of that coupled with two white Americans living in a very poor area also bring daily struggles with the role of finances in people's lives and their ideas of how we fit into that picture.

      Regarding the quote, we were using a particular pamphlet as a Lenten reflection tool in light of the Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church. Both of the quotes I used were taken from the pamphlet. I believe that many forces oppress Tanzanians and those living in material poverty the world over, particularly government corruption (which has been an issue here...though may be slowly improving with a new President) and a world economic system that favors the interests of the wealthy and powerful over the poor and marginalized. I quoted James Cone not specifically to dive into racial oppression, though it certainly is a relevant topic particularly given the struggles happening back in the States, but rather to highlight the link I see between the struggles of any oppressed group and the teaching and message of Jesus in the Gospels.


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