Saturday, October 29, 2011

Never Just an Individual Person

Life in East Africa is pretty communal — family, clan, and village provide the focus of one's life. Not for Africans the high individualism of many Western countries. It seems that a consequence of the communalism is that there is much less a sense of maintaining personal privacy and confidentiality. People know a lot more about each other's business.

Here's an example: our form four students just completed their national exams. After their papers have been marked, all the results will be publicly posted on the website of the examinations council, with the scores of individual students shown for each subject they tested in as well as an overall average. Every candidate is listed by name for every school so you can find out exactly how a particular student did.

There is part of me that likes this kind of transparency, especially because these exams are so critically important and there is always the possibility of cheating. There's another part of me that cringes. Diane and I are only marginally a part of Tanzanian society, so there's not much about us that can be revealed. Nevertheless, living here I often have some feeling of my psychic space being infringed on. For an East African it's just normal life, the social milieu that provides structure, security, and meaning.

What is less normal is being a very visible outsider. On the streets this means constantly being stared at as an "mzungu", which translates as "European". I could take exception to that, except that in this context it is actually ethnically accurate. A few Tanzanians who are more aware will look at me and see Chinese or Korean. Either way, I am presumed to have a mountain of money, unable to speak Swahili, and from alien ways. There's some truth to all of that. As in any simplistic stereotype, though, there's also much falseness.

At school and at church where we are regularly present and not quite such a novelty, there is another facet of how we are perceived. I am always aware that as a teacher I represent the school. And as a missioner I represent LMH. What I say and what I do, any misbehavior and any virtuous acts, almost certainly reflect on these organizations, whether intended or not. In other words, I am never "just me". For a very ordinary, somewhat boring and pedantic geek, being always "on" is one of the demands of signing up for this gig.

I look forward to walking the streets of San Francisco anonymously, sitting in a coffeehouse with a cappuccino, with no one paying any particular attention to me. -Earl

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