of marathons and misinformation: a lesson in tanzanian communication

A few days ago I posted a “review” of the Rock City Marathon, which I ran on Sunday.  I posted my ideas that day from a very western-dominated worldview for two reasons: 1) That is my default setting for thought.  And 2) most of my readers (all six of you) are American and likely think in a similar fashion.

But Jason Miller, super missionary in Mwanza, Tanzania, shared with me some great thoughts over coffee Monday morning about the news article I’d linked to and how it represented so well Tanzanian communication and values.  Then he left on my blog (while I was driving 11 hours) what might have been an intelligent African response to my own post.  There is a lot to be learned about Tanzanian culture from Jason’s few words on the subject.*  So I am reposting his comment here for all to read.  It’s likely that in the next few days, I’ll attempt a western response to Jason’s African one.  But please feel free to respond while proudly wearing your own American values on your sleeve.

Hey Brett,

I see that you replied last at 6:01. Well, since you were staying at my house, at 6:15 you and I were conversing over coffee when I made the comment that your post represented to a T[anzanian] a very western valued (albeit funny) view of the newspaper article from the Guardian. I then said something like, “If someone googles ‘Rock City Marathon’ I bet your blog comes up in the top five.” You were a little mortified by that possibility. Well, I just googled to make sure…and you are number 5.

So, since I’m privy to the information that you’re traveling all day from Mwanza to Dodoma, and being that after that conversation you were concerned and wanted to add an addendum to your post, I’ll post a comment from the viewpoint of your average Tanzanian forming the jist of our conversation in order to way-lay the concerns of those that are of the sociological viewpoint of a Tanzanian. You can add or subtract later, agree or disagree later.

Just so all you readers who are going to want to defend Brett know, Brett and I are good friends.

Considering the several disparaging comments you levied against the staff writer of the Guardian, they all seem to deal on some level with your over-valuing of truth at all costs. You see, as a white-male westerner (as you can only be since you liked the nick-name “The White Mamba”), you value accuracy and truth more than relationship and decency.

Let me explain. You begin by quibbling with the phrase “all the finest runners” and the word “marathon.” Your first questions, as a westerner, are concerned with the accuracy of these statements; whereas as a Tanzanian, you would have had no questions here, since what right-minded person who considers the feelings of others at all would have so coarsely belittled the effort and ability of those involved by directly accusing them of lying. Moreover, we as Tanzanians understand that the article is representing the best hopes of those involved, and has no direct relation to truth whatsoever.

About starting the race at 7am or later, what Tanzanian wouldn’t want to start later? At 7am it is still cold, is it not, being only 68 degrees F? How would one run in all the clothes needed to stay warm at that early hour?

Furthermore, you westerners obsession with time over relationship continues to confound me. You value this impersonal entity, time, more than you value being, as you westerners say, “in the moment.” Westerners like to talk of being “in the moment,” or being mentally present to those who are in front of them for the time they require their attention (regardless of allegiance to time), but in reality your true values are betrayed by the fact that many chance encounters are ended by the fact that a previous engagement has been arranged. Truly western, that: valuing that which is in the future, or, let’s be honest, the possible, more than valuing that which is right in front of you, or, in the most basic meaning, the real.

Did you ever consider that perhaps the Coke driver simply wanted to spend a little more time with his child that morning instead of rushing off to work because of a “previous engagement?”

And then you land back on accuracy concerning numerical reporting, taking to task the “3000″ involved in the race. Yes, of course, there were more like 300 involved, but what right-minded member of a society worth being a member of would value a random number over the intentions and relationships of those involved in planning this great event. So they said 3000 and there were actually 300…so what? Not a single Tanzanian thought there would be 3000. They are again, like good Tanzanians communicating to other Tanzanians, reporting the best intentions of those involved, not the base reality. Everyone in my neighborhood knows that reality is not worth paying attention to, but that it is intention that matters.

Next you’ll want to tell me that we should judge a man by his actions! No, not even you would be that ridiculous. A man’s intentions and the peculiarities of his situation are much more important than his successes. Everyone knows that. Who in Tanzania knows more than one or two people they could name as successful? Or better yet, someone who is successful and can still named as friend? For we all know, with success so often comes a set of compromised morals.

Anyway, at least it seems from your post that you value children. At least, from a sociological standpoint, we have that in common. Jesus, as well, seemed to value them at the expense, even, of others.

Along those lines, even our own writer, Paul, tells us in Ephesians that once we have matured we will be “speaking the truth in love….” Even Paul, that genius of western logic, understands that truth without love was a sign of immaturity.

How about you?

* “Few words” is relative.


Filed under culture, living in africa

17 responses to “of marathons and misinformation: a lesson in tanzanian communication

  1. Majeska Seese-Green

    Brett, I’m a regular reader, but I don’t suppose you counted me among the “six.” I’m in Eugene, Oregon. Really appreciate your work and your blog.

  2. I enjoyed Jason’s reply quite a bit, and assumed it was a parody. No?

  3. Beka D.

    I enjoyed reading his reply as well….as well as your original article. Interesting and eye opening. Congrats on finishing the marathon.:)

  4. Jason Miller (i.e. super missionary)

    Super missionary, huh?

    Is that like the West Wing episode where Toby loses a rock throwing contest to Josh in Indiana and as a consequence has to go around that rural Republican distract introducing himself in the following way: “Hi, I’m Toby…and I work in the White House.”

    “Hi, I’m super missionary.”

    I can relate anything to West Wing.

    And come on, Brett, “few words” isn’t relative, its representative of my best intentions….

    So I guess I need to get my own blog and stop hijacking yours. Hah, like there’s a chance of that happening. Once again, best intentions….

    Have fun in Dar. Have you eaten at Addis yet?

  5. Brett, thanks for including Jason’s Tanzanian critique of your critique of the Tanzanian article. These two highlight some important, intriguing and challenging cultural differences between the African and Western worldviews.

    On my first trip to Sierra Leone I heard an African lady, who had spent several months in the States say, “I would love to see the people of Africa paid in keeping with their hard work, but I don’t want to see them have to lose their families to get paid.” As I have grown to understand more of her perspective I appreciate what she was saying much more than I did that day.

    We fail to understand how culture impacts our perspective on many issues until we spend time with people from very different cultures. No, Justin’s article was not a parody. It was a solid presentation of some fundamental differences between Tanzanian values and Western values–shaped by our different world views.

    The critical issue on world views is that most of us uncritically assume our world view is biblical. But we always find those places where our world view is certainly not identical to that of people mentioned in the Bible.

    I appreciate you and Justin pushing us to probe these matters. It is good that the issue is a half marathon so we don’t get our righteous indignation up over the event, and fail to be able to focus some attention on our worldviews and values.

  6. I loved this. It really is a great way to see into the Tanzanian way of thinking about things and once Jason explained it like that, it does seem to make perfect sense!

    You know you have more than 6 readers. I can write that in my blog. You cannot.

    Just this morning I was leaving for work while having a lovely talk with Jason (Reneau) in the kitchen. He was waiting on the termite man to come do the annual inspection, but I had to hurry off to start my work day at 8:15…and I really wanted to stay and talk. The whole time thing is one aspect of being a westerner that I do not like. I wish we would all slow down a bit and chill out a bit and realize that everything does not have to be done today. Right now. In the 8+ hours we are spending at work. I sometimes roll my eyes (in my mind) at how important my co-workers think certain things are. I want to laugh and say “Did you just cure cancer? Solve the problem of poverty? Rescue a small child? Then why are you out of breath walking the three yards from your office to mine to tell me you received an e-mail or an update has been posted?”

    Okay, I’m off topic. But there it is. I like that Tanzanian mindset. And the part about all those clothes you need to wear to run in 68 degrees reminds me of China. They always told me I did not wear enough cloth-es.

  7. JMF

    This is random — and I mean no disrespect to the Tanzanian people — but this was my thought based on Jason’s response (btw, did Jason go to LU by way of YC?):

    Tan man: “Let’s have sex.”

    Tan woman: “Okay. Get a condom just in case one of us has AIDS.”

    Tan man: “The statistics are an exaggeration. There are actually, like, 30 people in all of Africa that have AIDS. Trust me.”

    Tan woman: “Okay, let’s have unprotected sex. I agree, accuracy in this sort of thing is overrated. What is important is that we enjoy our time and don’t focus too much on facts. After all, it is only relationships that matter.”

    I used to envy the world-view of others until I realized that they also have flaws. Kinda like Brett said a couple weeks ago — Africans aren’t content being poor. The poor guy want to move up to a mud hut.

    The scale is just different. Our American world-view is easy to criticize, but it isn’t the specific facts that are relevant—it is the heart. The poor Tanzanian can be more greedy than the American billionaire. Like all things with Christ, it is the heart condition we must consider.

    I envy about 10% of the Tanzanian world-view; the other 90% would make we want to beat my head against a wall.

  8. JMF

    Before Brett calls me out on a technicality, I should have said, “SOME poor Africans aren’t content being poor.”

  9. Ben

    I’d post more, but there are 3000 other blogs I was supposed to comment on before 9:45a. 🙂

  10. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

    Brett, I really miss your daily–or almost daily– posts.

  11. Brett, I heard a sermon by an old country preacher back around 1990 that stuck with me.

    He said, “Satan is the accuser of the brethren. The devil will use your family to accuse you. He will use your friends to accuse you. He will use other church members to accuse you. And he will even use your own conscience to accuse you.”

    Your job is to stand strong in the Word and in your calling.

    Any criticism from God will cause you to take a look at yourself, and think, “Yeah, maybe I do need to change this.” It will be a positive thing. Criticism from Satan will crush you and destroy your witness.

    Maybe I am reading this wrong, but from this end, it looks like that sarcastic tirade against you caused your silence in posting.

    Please know that God does not work in that manner. And please don’t let any attacks make you question your calling and your competence.

    God needs you in His army in full battle gear doing His work.

    If I am reading this wrong, please do delete this post. But I am so concerned that a precious soldier of Christ has been wounded in battle and is in danger of being sidelined.


  12. Pingback: bike rides and geographical oddities | aliens and strangers

  13. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: a cultural argument for lying? | aliens and strangers

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