Redefining the Question

I can’t even tell you how many times i have heard the questions: ‘So what is a normal day like for you?‘ or ‘What to you do each day?‘ or just simply ‘So what do you do?‘ These questions all seem very simple and i used to wonder why i would have such a hard time answering them.

Today, while talking with a fellow missionary and good friend of mine, Abby, i had an epiphany. Our American, or western, society defines progress by how much we accomplish in a day, by what we do. The more you do, the more successful your day has been. The more things you were able to check off your list the better. The West is a task oriented society. Tanzanian society, however, is very, very different. Tanzanians are people/relationship oriented. In America, time is scarce, therefore the task gains more importance. In Tanzania, time is plenty, so people and relationships take precedence over the task. In America, we can go through our checklist without investing any energy into the building of relationships. In Tanzania, every single thing that we do revolves around the relationship that we have with the person associated with the task.

In America, we can go to the grocery store, get everything on our list, go through the self-checkout, and potentially not have to engage in a single conversation. In Tanzania, first of all, you can’t just go to one place to get all that you need. To get everything on the list requires going to multiple places. Secondly, at each place you stop, a 5-10 to even 20 minute conversation ensues with the man that is selling you tomatoes, or the mama who is selling you bananas. To them, the conversation is everything. Before any business is transacted, the normal greetings MUST happen.

‘How are you this morning’

‘fine, how are you?’

‘doing great, how is your family?’

‘they are all well, how is your new business doing?’

‘a little slow but we are managing, have you heard about….’ and so forth and so on.

Only after the greetings can you actually get to the reason for your visit. Once your business is transacted you finish off with the customary farewells, wishing them a great day and telling them to greet their family for you. All of this just to buy a bunch of bananas, or a kilo of potatoes, or a dozen eggs (which by the way are brown on the outside, have white yolks on the inside, aren’t sold in a carton, and are not refrigerated) 🙂

While different from my home culture, this is actually a beautiful way of life of which i am becoming very accustomed. In the beginning, i used to get very frustrated at the lack of things i was able to mark off my list each day. I would come home from being in town, exhausted, after having only gone to the market. I would sit there and wonder what i had actually accomplished that day, feeling like it had been very unproductive. Looking back on it now, i see that even though, task wise, my day wasn’t as productive as i would have liked, relationship wise, i had invested a lot into the people that i had seen. Between building relationships with the people and doing that in a foreign language, i can see why each task took more out of me than it normally did at home.

I think, instead of asking ‘what do you do each day?‘ the better question is ‘whose life have you invested in today?

This has been such a good lesson for me to learn. I hope this has been as insightful for you as it has been for me.


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