I had the unique experience of getting to visit Arusha this week for an Evangelism conference for leaders of the Tanzanian United Methodist Church. This leadership included the District Superintendents, Missionaries, and Men’s and Women’s chairpersons. I will just go ahead and say that I NEVER thought I would be taking part in a conference on evangelism, willingly or unwillingly. A year ago I probably would have climbed out of a window to avoid going to such an event. However once again, Tanzania calls me to do things differently and once again, I remember that it is best to listen first. So because of this as well as the promise of a visit from an old friend, I found myself in Arusha, which seems like a huge city to my adjusted eyes though I will leave the fact of this statement for someone else to determine. I forget how in just four months, my expectations, my normals, my treats, look much different than they did before I left for the place that is currently my home. Perhaps it is a little early for a retrospective, but never too early to recognize where I have come from in order to be ready for where I am going. For example: I was appalled to find out that a boda boda from my hotel in Arusha into town costs TSH 7000, equivalent to about $3.00. The shock here is not so much the difference in price from my home in Tarime (TSH 1000), but that I was worried about pinching pennies rather than about taking a motorbike taxi (not entirely a trustworthy form of transportation) in a strange place where there is much more traffic than I am used to. Another illustration is that we were treated to rooms in a rather fancy hotel for this occasion, there was even a sitting toilet in my room rather than a squatty potty (we call them choos here)! I had brought only a few changes of clothes knowing that while hotels usually do not have lots of amenities, there is always a bucket provided so that you can wash clothes. Well, there were complimentary slippers, complimentary water bottles, good breakfast in the mornings, but no bucket. And I sure did miss that bucket when I ran out of clean pairs of pants.
I share these amusing occurrences not to shock or to encourage conversations about how different life is in Tanzania. Rather I seek only to illustrate a change in my own priorities and expectations. I love the community I am a part of here, but if I had held fast to some of the things I believed to be my basic moral and theological tenants, I would not be doing well. You see, life here has very little in common with any of the experiences I had before. Experiences are what define us, what drive us to ask questions, and what motivate us to find answers for ourselves. So naturally, in an environment in which my lifestyle and relationships are largely unintelligible or comparable to my life pre-Tanzania, I must reexamine what it is that I believe, and what things help me live out those beliefs. I have never found it more challenging to call myself a Christian, an American, a feminist, a woman, a servant, a United Methodist, than here.
Some of these roles, if I were to name them here, would simply indicate identities that I do not possess. Like the other day, an older man who was working behind the counter in the pharmacy I stepped into asked me if I was, “a girl or a wife,” a simple question that was really about clarifying if he should refer to me as Dada (sister) or Mama, but the implication was more that until I am married and pregnant, that I am not a woman. So my response was that I was “a very young girl,” and while this is a great anecdote to tell, the difficult truth is that it is hard to connect with married women and mothers, even if these mothers are younger than me, because they are not used to working with or listening to “girls.” I am learning to accept this because I get the importance of the distinction. Death is a frequent occurrence during birth for mothers and for babies, it is body altering and can be traumatic. Being called “Mama” is a label that is earned. Right now I am very very happy to be a “Dada” instead.
“Feminist” is a word that doesn’t really translate into Swahili (though there are many women’s empowerment movements), and I don’t know that I would share this part of my identity with my community as any understanding of feminist would be a contradiction to what it means to be a Christian in the eyes of many. I squirm thinking of the the things my former classmates, professors, and friends would say to the kinds of things I do (and fail to do) on a daily basis. I wear a skirt to church every Sunday because that is what Godly women do here. Godly women also find husbands quickly and serve them by having children and keeping a good house, they do not traipse to the other side of the world because “God called them to,” God would never do such a thing. I work closely with a woman who is the second of two wives in her family, we have never discussed this. Female circumcision happens in my community every other year, and no, it is not good, I also see how uncircumcised girls struggle to be a part of their community, how they are isolated from support and wisdom of other women, their families, and job security. I often choose to be accompanied by a man when I go to certain places, because somedays I am too tired to want to risk being grabbed for the sake of independence. Never before did I realize what a privilege it is to be able to call myself a feminist, and if that means insisting on theories and beliefs that are completely irrelevant to my reality here, and could still get me arrested, then it is not worth my time to claim this.
And Christian? Ha. By Tanzanian standards I am about as sinful as they come. I drink (well I did in the U.S.), I use ungodly language, I wear trousers, I have very close to zero Bible verses memorized, and I am American (somehow this is the eighth deadly sin). But I also no longer fit into the Christianity I come from, God is for sure a man here (ask anyone) and I will certainly not challenge that openly. I attended an Evangelism conference in which we literally mapped out all the places without a United Methodist church and set dates for when one should be planted, for no other reason except that there should be a United Methodist Church in every town. And when the preacher calls for an amen I speak up regardless of if his (and it usually is a “his”) statement really deserved an Amen.
It is because of these disruptions to my identity that I am assured that they are genuine. Because only a real woman need not always be called such, a Feminist should always make room for experience, a Christian- well that means living in the real world, and a servant never has a choice. Here in Tarime, I often forget about what I am supposed to believe. Sometimes I remember, but then I must live in this world once again, and those things, so close to the core of myself, even those things, are not important enough for my survival, for my call, for the work that must happen here. Perhaps I should have been smart enough to make some of these distinctions between morality and tools for maintaining my morality without having to traipse across the world, but the reality is that I must cultivate new tools here because my old ones don’t work. Perhaps when Martin Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” he was driven to do so not by a change of theology or morals, but by seeing a need for new ways to communicate the Good News. The Good News never changes, we change.