image courtesy of photobucket.com
I was recently interviewed by a college student concerning my current life as a missionary on a foreign field. I generally try not to be a blogger who posts interviews with himself (especially the ones that ask what I’m listening to right now and who the last person with whom I spoke on the phone was), but many of you ask to read more about our lives here in Tanzania. So I thought this interview would be alright, though I’ve tweaked the interview itself, cutting and pasting here and there, etc. I’m planning to post it in two parts, because I went into such great detail on this first question:
What expectations did you have concerning missionary life that have proved unrealistic?
The three years I served in China before coming to Tanzania helped to remove many of the unrealistic expectations I might have otherwise had. However, I was still not prepared for everyday life to take so long. I tried to prepare myself for it; I knew it would be the case. But I failed. I had been in Africa a couple of times, and for several months, prior to moving to Geita. A lot of that time was spent in nearby Mwanza — which I knew was a larger city, but thought would be similar. In some ways it is. But not many. Everyday tasks just require a great deal more time than ever before. Some of this is cultural, but much of it is simply due to goods not being available in stores (or being very expensive) and city services being poor at best. Some examples:
- We constantly run out of water (or within 200-300 liters of it), despite the fact that we’re on city water. In a typical week (if there is such a thing), water from the city is turned on for four hours, two days a week. So depending on our water usage (and whether we have visitors — equals extra showers, more dishes, etc), I could easily spend 4-6 hours of my work week getting water myself or having it delivered. And getting it myself requires time spent by Carson or Calvin (as they have means of moving large amounts of water, and I don’t), eating into their work days as well.
- Being without electricity can obviously change one’s schedule a great deal.
- There’s no such thing as running to the market, or into town, for ten minutes to pick up a few things. If I go near their stalls or storefronts, there are at least 7 or 8 vendors I am expected to go and greet, and many people along the way want to stop and chat. Only a short conversation is needed, and I consider this a real benefit of living in small town Africa — but it easily turns ten-minute trips into 30.
- There are many goods which, in order to be obtained, require trips to other cities (oats, canned vegetables, coffee, frozen chickens,* etc) — and others which are much cheaper in those other cities (almost everything, from bulk toilet paper to soap to nearly every food item, etc). Mwanza is the nearest city, and (now, due to a new paved road and an extra ferry across the lake,) is about a 2 1/2 hour journey, one-way.
- Car repair is also in Mwanza, as are many of the government offices we might need to visit. [Geita, however, has just become its own region, and is the capital of that region, so these offices will "soon" be coming our way.] Our insurance office is in Mwanza, and even our post office box is there (none available in Geita right now, and there exist zero large boxes at our post office anyway — for our team to share).
- A meeting time is not a meeting time. It’s usually a suggested time at which you might think about starting to go where you’re going. So if I’m told someone will meet me at 10:00 am, I have begun to expect them after 11:30. I used to try and find something useful to do during that time, while waiting at the specified location. Now I just show up a little late myself (still always first, though, no matter how hard I try). Not only does the waiting take time, but it prevents me from scheduling three meetings a day. Literally, two one-hour meetings can take an entire work day.
- We make our own bread, process our own meat, and almost all food is cooked from scratch. In the states, I always had an option to stick a frozen pizza in the oven or eat a bag of chips. Here, if there are any frozen pizzas, it’s because Christie made them Monday because she knew she wouldn’t have time on Thursday because of Bible study. If there are any chips, they’re homemade tortilla chips (from scratch, which is quite a process).
I should be clear that much of the time spent “living” is in some way or another related to wanting to be comfortable. If we only ate rice and beans every day like the Tanzanians do, we wouldn’t have to process pigs and make our own bread. If we bathed with damp rags every three days (not trying to be rude, but honest) or washed (owned) less clothes, we wouldn’t require nearly the amount of water we do. If I didn’t own a truck, I wouldn’t need an insurance office in Mwanza. So, in fairness, I should admit that it would at least be possible for us to live differently.
However, I’m still not sure how much time it would save. Because, were we to decide to live like some of our fellow Geitans, we’d necessarily walk everywhere, cook outside over charcoal, and fetch water from a bucket every time we needed it. So in some ways, those things which make us comfortable actually increase the time available for work and ministry. It’s not like the Tanzanian women don’t spend much of the day cooking. I think living here simply takes longer, no matter who you are. The guy with the bank account has to wait in a 10+ person line, and the guy without has to do the same at the cell phone store. [If you don't have a bank account, you keep your money on your phone -- read more about that here under "mobile money."] Christie and I, then, have decided to fall a bit on the comfortable side, despite the time involved. We have pizza once a week, take showers daily, use the internet, and have an indoor kitchen.
So living in Geita takes a great deal more time than I ever imagined it would. And that time has to come from somewhere — time spent working, studying, with family, relaxing, exercising, or sleeping has to be cut (or some of each).** That’s frustrating to me, because I sometimes feel like I’m not accomplishing as much as I should. I suppose much of that is because I compare my work week to what it was in the states. Probably a bad idea. Africa can be a tough place for someone who is driven. Especially when that someone has generally determined his self-worth and value by his own accomplishments. As you can probably guess, Tanzania has been good for me. I’ve been forced (wish I hadn’t needed to be) to find my worth elsewhere — and I’m learning that God loves me (and so do my wife and friends), no matter how many things I get done in a day.
* Interestingly enough, frozen chickens in Mwanza cost the same as live local chickens in Geita — and have more meat on them. I kind of enjoy slaughtering animals and processing meat, but if buying frozen chickens yields more meat in less time (if we’re already in Mwanza with a cooler), I’m going to choose that option.
** A “work day” for me is (when possible) seven hours (instead of eight), and I wake up a lot earlier than I used to. I’ve not (and am not willing to) cut family time. And my exercise, study, and rest times have stayed about the same.