Jim Harries’ report on his July to August 2015 trip to Tanzania and Migori

Some experiences and reflections from Jim Harries 2015 trip around Tanzania and back into Migori, Kenya, July to August 2015.

 

I made stops in Dodoma, Babati, Mbulu, Singida, Mwanza and Musoma in Tanzania,
then Migori in Kenya.

 

I stopped with church leaders, many once my students at Kima International School of Theology, Kenya, and spent my time encouraging and fellowshipping with believers.

 

Remaining stopped up (no diarrhoea)

A rumbling tummy has often made a bus trip in Africa an experience I did not look forward to at all. I would get nervous as the time for the departure of the bus approached. Sitting in a bus is a bit like being in a prison cell! There’s no toilet on board. One doesn’t want to be the one to delay everybody by having to stop the vehicle just because one’s tummy is rumbling or because one had an extra cup of tea and the pressure on the bladder is getting too high! I gave the matter of rumbling-tummy to God in prayer before this trip, and have had really a good experience on this front!

Endless people amazed at language knowledge

The almost constant topic of conversation with people I have engaged with on route, has been my language knowledge. I don’t want to open that topic of conversation. I just go and talk to people. Nine times out of ten, they say ‘how do you know Swahili / Luo? You speak it really well!’ Yes, I did get rather tired of this question, but it kept coming. Even at home where I live in Kenya the question comes all too often from people who do not already know me well. In one town in Kenya (my last stop on my trip) I overheard many people saying ‘that White man has an excellent of the Luo language!’ After just two days there, I seemed to be the talk of the town.

To me, that question is a little embarrassing. It seems to reveal something about my people. When people see me of course, regardless of how long I have lived in ‘Black Africa’, they see a White man. Even I get a shock when I see myself in a mirror. I look just like a tourist, but I speak like a local (except for the English accent). The shock that people express when they hear me speak their language shows just how rare it is for Westerners to take African languages seriously.

I sometimes reflect on how the ‘reverse’ would go down in the UK. Almost every African person I meet with who does not already know me well, knows from experience that someone of my colour must be addressed in a foreign language. I guess they are right. Hence African people are very prejudiced in how they address someone. You are addressed according to your presumed ethnicity. Now imagine I was to do that in the UK. Imagine if in the UK I was to assume that someone I met who wasn’t as white as me did not know English. … If not a racist, I would at least be accused of being prejudiced. Ironically, norms that we implement in the UK to try to accommodate people to our culture, like to assume that everybody is educated and speaks English, can have a divisive impact in Africa.

Where to stay

Visiting in the circles I know in Africa, the question of where I will sleep is frequently only gradually revealed. On this trip, I would arrive at a place and meet my host, while not knowing where they have in mind for me to sleep. In some places, I have been in a guesthouse with electricity and running water (and sometimes neither electricity nor running water works). At other times, well, a whole variety of African homes. My European upbringing continues to trouble me with respect to sleeping places in Africa. It’s not only me. Before I left for Tanzania a missionary colleague said to me ‘if you stay in people’s homes you will soon get infected with bedbugs and lice’. I hanker after white sheets, clean beds, painted walls, and a desk, chair and lamp so that if I wake up at night I can read or write something. Often I did not get such things.

This hankering seems to me to be illogical. Money can indeed in many places in Africa buy these things. I could stay in a hotel with clean rooms etc. But then I would miss out enormously on the company and interaction that you get when you stay with a family, especially when relaxing with people in the evenings. Why should a bed-bug or a few lice (if they are there? I’ve never seen a lice) be responsible for breaking Christian fellowship and setting me apart to stay alone or only with wealthy people in town? Am I going to refuse to do God’s work because of lice? It’s illogical, but my European me thinks in this way![1]

Simply teaching the bible

It is very common these days for Western people visiting Africa to have an agenda to ‘help Africans’ in a variety of ways. This could be through a wide variety of projects. Western people have this approach in Africa, that they generally do not have in Europe. Within Europe (or North America) you go to visit friends for the sake of maintaining friendships. In Africa, it is like Europeans very often seem to have an agenda of showing people a better way of life. That better way of life arises from ways of understanding that are peculiar to Western people. Typically, as a bare minimum, it requires a good knowledge of English to implement. It also requires outside money. This means that many visitors to Africa from the West carry money to their hosts.

Some Westerners I guess do not know how troublesome that money is when it comes to developing relationships with African people. The same applies to the approach that is one of ‘I have come from a superior people and I have plans to help you to benefit from our superiority’. This kind of approach immediately sets up a certain relational dynamic which puts the African hosts at the bottom. Whether they realise it or not, this puts the visitor into the role of patron, and the local person into the role of client. It also means that all the neighbours are likely to get jealous, as they assume that the white person you have visiting you has carried a lot of money and is handing it out. Very often fights break out, people fall out, or even steal from one another, after their visitor has gone.

It has been my conviction, that the most important thing that I can share with people is a knowledge of God. When expressed in their own language, such knowledge of God comes for free. Because I do not advocate a project that works on the basis of Western worldview presuppositions, I do not need to advocate English learning, science, or other things that Westerners are often better at than Africans. Instead, I just share about God. The God I share about is he who is far better than me. One of whom I am not worthy even to undo his sandals. I do not talk about how good I am because my relationship with God is not dependent on my being good! It is dependent on him accepting me, who is as bad as everyone else (or worse) simply because he chooses to. This kind of relationship with God is a great leveller.

Falling exercise levels in Africa

It was strange to find that my colleagues often do very little exercise. One thing I often find difficult on trips, is the lack of exercise. I guess I tend to do a lot of exercise when at home, arising particularly from the fact that I live in the middle of a village far from tarmac roads, and cycle everywhere. At the same time, a few years ago it was probably true that generally speaking African people were pretty fit and healthy. That may not be the case now. The advent of the mobile phone, plus the popularity of motorcycle taxi business on the side of numerous young men, means that getting around has become very easy indeed. There is no longer any need to walk anywhere, especially long distances, when one can just call a motorcycle taxi. People get picked up at their door and taken exactly where they want to go. The incidence of diabetes is rising sharply, one colleague told me, as I noted that he intentionally walks to work and drinks tea without sugar! Personally, I am glad to be re-united with my bicycle.

Longing to be home troubled me much!

I surprised myself by how much, while on my trip travelling around and visiting and encouraging churches, I longed to be home. I don’t even quite understand why. One thing I think is, here at my office at home (well, actually, 7 miles from home, hence the cycling) I can get on with some work. A task oriented person like myself is easily frustrated by the lack of ‘task’ activity here in Africa. Especially amongst senior men, in which group I tend to find myself these days, relative inactivity seems to be highly valued. The other thing I think must be that I miss people at home (i.e. at home in in Kenya), with whom I regularly share my life.

Discussing Critical Issues

Being a visitor opens up opportunities for relaxed conversation. Sometimes relaxed conversation with colleagues is the best sort. That is; it can be more fruitful than seminars or meetings. When people are relaxed they share their hearts. Just sitting together in the evenings, having a cup of tea, walking together … can provide excellent opportunities for learning from one another. Visiting people gives opportunity for developing close relationships with a wide variety of people in a wide variety of circumstances. In my case, I was particularly privileged to spend a lot of time with church leaders.

I must admit though that these opportunities are not as good as one might hope. What do I mean by that? Someone coming to Africa from the English-speaking world can come with an agenda of discussions that they want to enter in to, things they want to talk about, and proposals that they want to make. That approach works for people when they speak only English, and engage in the short term while proposing projects that require a lot of money. I think they do not work very well for me. I know too much! That is: I will not enter into those conversations, because I can already see where they will hit the rocks. Hence I am less inclined to have ‘strategic’ conversations, about how things ‘ought to be’ in the Western sense. When people are taken outside of their area of their own competence they might not stop talking, but the talk can turn to pleasing the Westerner and take them way beyond what they actually know.

Problem; being standard bearer for Whites

African people can put Whites into the same box. Once they have met one White, then they expect others to behave in a similar way. Sometimes those ways of behaving are offensive. For the sake of good brotherly relations, African people will put up with such offence, and life goes on. The mind boggles as to how often I might still be offending people without even realising it!

Although I can offend people, my long-time living on the Continent, and knowledge of local languages, means that I can be more careful in how I express myself. As above – I try to avoid taking conversations down ‘western’ routes, where my African colleagues flounder to know what to say. I am also fairly relaxed about where I sleep. One African leader on my trip announced a number of times in public that Jim is a good visitor, because he can sleep anywhere! I was not insisting on sleeping in a hotel. But then, what happens when other White visitors come, and they want to stay in that hotel? Will I have shown them up? Will they be told; ‘well, Jim ate this food, did so and so, and slept here, so why can’t you’? That sounds like a good way of damaging friendships with fellow missionaries!

Where to from here?

Having been on the road for most of the last 6 months, I am committed to spending more time at home for a while. Then the question arises – how much time I should in the future spend on trips like the one I have just been on in Tanzania? Perhaps I should be arranging more trips in Luoland in Kenya? I had planned to visit Congo and Zambia. They did not work out. Should I now re-enact those plans, maybe to travel early next year?

[1] The bible seems to advocate staying with local people. When Jesus sent out his disciples in Luke 10:5-7, he told them to stay in the house which they entered, and to eat and drink there.