Shortly before I left, a good friend, Carson Williford, asked me, “How do you think life will be different now that you aren’t in an academic setting anymore?” Part of my answer was something like, “The reason I started studying philosophy was so that I could better answer all these everyday questions about how to live a good life. So when I am working in Tanzania, I won’t be writing essays, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be doing even more philosophy.”
For the first five weeks, this has been true. Some of the new everyday questions (the title is the Swahili word for “questions”) that don’t have an easy answer:
Some Tanzanians (though not all) charge higher prices when they perceive that someone can pay more. Some of this comes from the same greed that we all struggle with, but also, it really makes sense to them. Why shouldn’t you pay more if you can afford more? If the people who have more money do pay more, then the store owners can charge less for those who don’t have as much, and can still break even. How to respond? Should I give a deep, genuine smile and pay the higher price? Or should I haggle, so that people and churches that sponsor me will need to give less and can therefore support more good causes? I promised to spend money only on necessities. Is this a necessity?
There is a scene in my fave movie, Gandhi, where a British friend asks how he can help. Gandhi declines the offer, saying, “I have to be sure, they have to be sure, that what we do can be done by Indians alone.”(Gandhi, 1982) At the same time, it seems obviously unloving not to help those who are having a hard time, especially if they specifically ask for your help. Well, that question itself is nothing new. The new question is about my role as I begin working with these communities in the next few weeks. Where exactly should I be in the process of helping churches and communities to evaluate their strengths, goals, and resources in order to create a plan to improve things? It would be best to give the church and community as much responsibility as possible. What does “as much responsibility as possible” look like in the mess of momentary decisions though? When do I say something, when should I be silent? How often should I meet with them? Surely I shouldn’t correct everything that seems like a mistake to me. At what point does hands-off become negligence though?
There is a view of our relationship to God, often called the “Prosperity Gospel” that says that if someone is faithful to God, God will improve their material well-being. Well, I’ve always told people this view is false and have never had a second thought about it. When my Tanzanian friends tell me they see it this way though, I don’t know what to say. (It’s happened three times already!) These folks generally aren’t hoping to be millionaires like Joel Osteen but rather, to be able to consistently provide for a family. In one of these conversations, I replied that praying and worshiping God does not mean more money, but instead, that we will learn how to love. My friend Simon replied,
“So you think God gives us love?”
“But not money?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
Simon responded with some genuine laughter, and I didn’t know what to say next. It’s awkward that the one comfortable believing that God does not give us money is the one who also doesn’t have nearly as much reason to be worried about money.
Gandhi. Dir. Richard Attenborough. Perf. Ben Kingsley. Columbia, 1982. DVD.