A Meditation on Rural East-African Paradoxes

Originally written as an outline for a speech in Sept 2011

1. They have so much, yet they have nothing.

In Ntagacha, Tanzania, a mud hut is home to a multi-generational family with only a few goats, a small plot of maize, a jeiko stove, and a few dulled, dyed congas to call their own. The three-year-old boy who doesn’t know his birthday is toting his newborn sister on his back, responsible for her care most of the day. Their thick calloused skin is caked in the dusty orange dirt that covers most of the country. Stomachs swollen from not getting enough; breasts sagging from giving too much. But they give and give and give... to visitors, guests, passersby, mzungus (that’s us—the white people) before they will take anything for themselves. Is it not counterintuitive that this degree of selflessness exists within a people who barely have enough to keep themselves alive? 

2. They’re disconnected, yet so connected.

They are a people always in motion, yet so still and peaceful. They don't run, scamper, "hustle" through life like we do through our concrete jungles. They walk. They smile. They greet everyone who passes. Some look as if they have no particular destination. Maybe the market in the next village. The hut of the neighbor whose chicken just laid eggs. The impromptu worship service at the church on the hill. The funeral of the eight-year-old boy whose emaciated body was swallowed by malaria. They orbit in continuous motion through, to, and around different points on a grid of dirt paths that slice through rolling green hills. How is it that they know each other better than we do? Because their face time is face time. Not an iPhone app that pixelates truth and filters emotion. 

3. One African man told me, “God gave Americans watches but no time. He gave Africans time but no watches.”

We look at their world—their “developing” world—and see an absence of things. Of technology, food, roads, water, electricity, clothes, and all of the comforts we think we need. All the clutter. All the noise. What would happen if we cleared the clutter from our lives of ridiculous excess? What would be left would be not an absence, but an abundance of what matters. What they have. Simplicity, happiness, fellowship and generosity that knows no bounds. They use and cherish the resources they have instead of ruthlessly accumulating more. It’s often hard to comprehend how so much smiling and laughing and touching exists in one of the most impoverished places on earth. Meanwhile, we - the people clinching iPhones and designer coffee with lacquered fingernails - We are the ones with scowls on our faces.