A few months ago I read an article titled “Please Don’t Say, “They Are Poor But They’re Happy.” (linked) This article has stuck with me and come to mind time and time again.
I’ve been here in Tanzania 9 months. It’s easy to start to feel bitter toward the western mindset/my home culture/everything I’ve ever known. It’s easy to start feeling like this is actually home. It’s easy to look down on the rich. But truth is I am rich. I have not known the feeling of going to bed hungry, with children who are hungry, with no hope that tomorrow will be any different. I have never stood on the corner downtown, with a small cup, begging from everyone who passes, hoping to be able to buy any portion of food for myself/my children. I have not watched as friends and family die of easily preventable causes, but due to lack of money they cannot receive treatment.
As mentioned in the above article “If the poor are so happy, that alleviates some of the rich person’s guilt. The wealthy outsider can praise their good attitudes, their thankfulness, they can categorize their smiles in the face of dire circumstances as evidence of happiness. And in doing so, they remove the burden of guilt, complicity, and the pressure to act. The also remove the poor person’s natural human ability to feel complex emotions, happiness being one of the most simplistic emotions there is.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the statement, “they are poor but they are so happy.” I’m sure I have even used it. But the longer I am here, the more Tanzania (one of the poorest countries in the world) becomes home, the more I see the complexity of the situation. I happen to live in a very affluent neighborhood. To walk around the streets here and see the houses that are big enough to house maybe 20-30 people still blows my mind. I walk about 5 minutes away to go to a little duka (shop) to buy eggs and sometimes a variety of other things I need. This little shop, a mere 5 minute walk away, is in a totally different world. The houses are mostly sparse concrete or mud, one, two maybe three rooms tops. The doors are mostly just curtains, but the people spend most of their time outside anyway. A brief walk around and you may see many different things. Women washing clothes in buckets outside their houses. Women cooking on a small charcoal burner. Women roasting corn. Men carrying heavy concrete bricks. Children in school uniforms, walking to or from class, or skipping all together. Children playing in the dirt. Chickens strutting around pecking at the ground. The occasionally young boy following his family’s herd of goats.
Edna, this beautiful woman I visit to buy eggs from has a little shop. It’s actually two rooms, the front being her shop and the second back room being her house. She lives there with, at least, her husband and two children, but it is not uncommon to have other family members live with you as well. She works hard, and is incredibly kind. She can’t speak a word of English, but through my broken Swahili we communicate. It’s easy to see she recognizes she knows she’s blessed. It’s also clear how much she loves her children. Her daughter is going to a good school, as she is learning English, which is not the case at the government primary schools. It’s easy to recognize that her mother knows her daughter’s education is what will change her future.
In this article the author states “I am not surprised by, but continue to be disappointed in, the western attitude toward the developing world. It is an attitude I see often, though not exclusively, among Christians. It is an attitude of superiority, a god-complex. An attitude that communicates an underlying assumption, intentionally or not, that the rich westerner is the one with power and authority and agency. As this is communicated, of course the opposite is communicated as well. The local person is weak, a victim, and helpless. The rich westerner must charge in to fix things, build things, challenge the status quo.” And my heart breaks. It breaks because I am a rich westerner. I want to have all the answers and solve all the problems. But I can’t and they don’t necessarily need me to. This is something I am continually struggling with. Yes, I see my neighbors struggling. Yes I want to help them. But how much greater is it to teach a man to fish than to bring him fish?
So I’m learning. I’m investing. I’m allowing myself to be hurt. I am allowing myself to love. And I am praying, a lot, trying to learn where He has me in all of this. And in it all, I am falling more and more in love with this country that is becoming home.