How important is rest? Do missionaries and development workers deserve time off? Who decides when we get to relax? Is it okay to lie in certain situations… if it’s expected?
[This post is one installment of a somewhat (okay, extremely) irregular feature called Missionary Predicaments. Occasionally I attempt to explain some recent (or ongoing) dilemma having to do with being a missionary and development worker in Tanzania. And then I ask what you think the proper Christian missionary response would be. Then I do whatever you said. Well… maybe not. But I do welcome all advice — especially if you’re over 50 years old and have grey hair.]
You and your wife have worked eight days straight and really need a break. You want to sit in your house and watch a few episodes of West Wing without making dinner for anyone, chatting with neighbors, or answering questions about job opportunities within your “organization.” Just as you sit down with homemade tortilla chips and glasses of sent-from-America Crystal Light, there’s a knock at the gate and a loud “hodi,” followed by a continuous and steady string of “hodi”s.* It’s an acquaintance of yours, a local pastor from a church down the road, and you’re sure he’s come just to sit and chat for a bit (an hourish) on the front porch — which requires that your wife make chai, and neither of you watch West Wing until later or, more likely, another day. What do you do?
Background and Culture
- Visitors are extremely important in Tanzanian culture. It is always an honor to have a guest.
- Therefore, it is important to be a good and hospitable host. A female in the house should at least make tea, and probably provide a snack of some sort, as the men sit and talk together.
- When something is an inconvenience to a Tanzanian, he is expected to lie. It is extremely rude to tell someone, “no.” But it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I have a lot of work to do today,” even if it is untrue — even if the person with whom you’re speaking knows it to be untrue. Someone asks to borrow your expensive camera or, better yet, asks if they can have it. If you tell them “no,” you’ve insulted them. They walk away with a hurt (or broken) relationship, mumbling about how you could have at least spared them the indignity by answering, “Maybe another day,” or “Well, my wife really needs to use it tonight.”
Factors to Consider
- It’s unlikely you and your family will ever have more than 3 or 4 uninterrupted hours in your house. And it’s nearly impossible to predict (or guess) when those times will be. People show up at all hours of the day.
- The pastor has already seen you through the windows of your house (as you’ve only lived there a relatively short time and don’t have curtains yet — water and electricity took precedence). So pretending you’re not home is not an option — not that you would have done that anyway. Just saying….
- This is starting to become a trend: planning a time to relax and having it interrupted.
- It’s not that talking with this pastor is extremely difficult or belaboring (it’s getting much easier for you to talk for an uninterrupted hour in Swahili, though your brain is a little tired afterward). It’s more that you’ve been looking forward to this break — and believe it will actually help you, your ministry to others, and your marriage if you enjoy a little downtime.
- It’s not just an inconvenience to you, though. Your wife also is expected to serve tea and maybe snacks. Keep in mind, there are no bags of chips or cookies in your pantry. And if there are, they either came from the states or were very expensive — and probably wouldn’t taste good to your pastor friend anyway. That means whipping up some chapatis or thawing out some of your homemade bread to serve with jam and butter.
- Back in the states, you might have just explained to your friend that you and the wife really need some time together, and had planned for that time to be now. You’ve been busy and need a break. And your friend would have understood. Of course he probably also would’ve called before walking the mile-and-a-half to your house. Okay, he never would have walked to your house.
- This visitor has just walked 1 1/2 miles to your house.
- [Editor's note -- added after initial publishing for clarification] Explaining that you need rest, this is your day off, or you’re wanting to spend time with your family are not acceptable reasons for turning away guests. Work, sickness, having other guests, or even preparing for other guests would, however, be acceptable.
- You’re trying to live into the culture of Tanzania, and want to provide as few barriers to the gospel as possible. But you’re just not sure lying is the right thing to do — even though it’s culturally acceptable.
- You realize lying is also at times culturally acceptable in your home culture — even among Christians:
- “Girlfriend, your hair looks good. You rock that mohawk!”
- “Oh, I’m fine, doing just great — and you?”
- “Your baby is so cute. [She doesn't look at all like an alien lizard.]“
- “I can’t tell you’ve gained a pound.”
- “It’s not you — it’s me.”
- “I just don’t want to ruin the great friendship we have.”
- “What dinosaur? I don’t see a dinosaur.”
- You probably should be thinking about what to do in this specific situation, but also how you will deal with all of this for the next eightish years. Can you say the same thing you say today every time this happens? Should you find a different place to relax? What about when you get even busier with agriculture development and church planting? What then?
What would you do? In the short term? In the long term? How important is rest? Time with family? How do we create and protect these moments? [I'll share with you in an upcoming post what we've decided to do.]
* Hodi = Swahili word that announces the presence of a visitor at a door or gate. I’m guessing this practice developed over the knock because of the general lack of doors on which one could knock. And a single “hodi” will not, under any circumstance, suffice. The visitor is required to “hodi” constantly until the door is opened or (in some cases) someone from inside answers with “nakuja,” a familiar way of saying, “I’m coming.” However, one must continue yelling “nakuja” until one has actually opened the door, lest the “hodi”ing begin again. It seems the general rule is that there can be no time of quiet, however brief, between the arrival of a visitor and the actual opening of the door. I’ve on several occasions thought about doing the same sort of thing while waiting for my food at a restaurant or while waiting to be helped at the hardware store — constantly repeating my order until I actually have the item in my hand. It truly is sad that a word announcing a guest (something which is quite an honor in this context) can come to mean about the same thing as nails screeching on a chalkboard.