One of the first pieces of advice we received from staff at Global Lutheran Outreach was “try not to be as independent as you are used to.” That advice has been repeated many times since then.
It’s true that independence is greatly valued in the United States. Our infrastructure illustrates this value. I recently came across this quote from the book In Pursuit of Loneliness as I was reading Jonathan Bonk’s Missions and Money:
“We seek a private house, a private means of transportation, a private garden, a private laundry, self-service stores, and do-it-yourself skills of every kind. An enormous technology seems to have set itself the task of making it unnecessary for one human being ever to ask anything of another in the course of going about his daily business. Even with the family, Americans are unique in their feeling that each member should have a separate room, and even a separate telephone, television, and car, when economically possible. We seek more and more privacy, and feel more and more alienated and lonely when we get it. What accidental contacts we do have, furthermore, seem more intrusive, not only because they are unsought but because they are unconnected with a family pattern of interdependence” Slater, In Pursuit of Loneliness, 7.
I’ve always been an extrovert who enjoys getting to know people, but lately I have realized that this quote bears some truth in my life. I am accustomed to a lot of privacy and doing things for myself. Thus you can imagine what it was like when we first moved here and we had to ask for help with everything-- transportation, meals, medical care, washing clothes, shopping, and language. Moving to a new culture in some sense requires becoming a child again. Suddenly you are not the independent adult you thought you were. You are the dependent little kid who has to ask someone how to do… well, everything. As we learn and begin to figure out how to do these things for ourselves, it is tempting to say, “No thank you. I don’t need your help,” but we’ve realized that when we do, we deny ourselves the opportunity to build a relationship.
Hiring someone to help with time-intensive chores has also proven to be a significant shift in our lives and perspective. Over time, Omary has become like a member of our family, and yet having someone consistently in the house was and continues to be an adjustment. When someone is in your house for many hours a day and shares every meal with you, a great deal of vulnerability is required. It’s hard.
When Omary first started working for us, every time I would leave the house, I would lock the door to our bedroom. Somehow having someone in our private room seemed too personal. However, one day I asked him to wash all the windows. When I returned, I realized I had forgotten to lock the bedroom door, and there he was washing the windows. The boundary had been crossed. I don’t regret it. Omary has proven himself trustworthy on many, many occasions. However, letting a person who is very different from me into my life and personal spaces feels risky. What will he think of me? Of my various habits? Of the messy parts of my life? I want to only show the good sides of myself to Tanzanians, but by letting someone into my home, I have removed the possibility of hiding my darker moods. Omary, more than any other Tanzanian, has seen both Eric and me at our best and at our worst. He can tell when I am angry or sad, when I am obsessing about something I shouldn’t be obsessing about, when I am sloppy, when my perfectionism takes over, when I am being a control-freak… He sees it. And he takes it in stride.In the U.S., we also seemed to have more control over our social sphere. If I wanted to visit with someone, generally we would set up a get-together in a restaurant, coffee shop, or sometimes my home. If someone was invited into my home, it was generally at a prearranged time. I also generally knew how long the visit would last and could graciously excuse myself if I needed to continue on with my other activities of the day. People didn’t tend to just stop in, and no one, outside of our immediate family, had daily access to our house, our own private sanctuary.
And yet, with a change in culture, we too must adapt. I wish I could say that I’m comfortable with friends just stopping in to say hello, but it still remains difficult for me to lose that sense of control, to shift gears from what I was doing to the relationship at hand. Tanzanians are known for their sense of hospitality. As a cultural norm, guests are considered a blessing—no matter whether they were expected or not. My parents got to see it first hand as twice during their visit, we stopped by a friend’s house to introduce them-- with no prior warning-- and our Tanzanian friends welcomed them warmly, with juice or soda and even a snack. Tanzanians also have the custom of accompanying the guest part of the way toward their home, as a sign of wanting to spend as much time with them as possible. We try, but I think many Tanzanians have realized that we are not as skilled at hospitality as they are. Yet they treat us with grace, knowing that we are learning and growing in this area. We continue to learn from the people who have let us into their homes and lives.