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Dear Tanzanian Friends, I'm Sorry for Being a Jerk Sometimes

Dear Tanzanian friends,

You know that feature on Facebook that says, "You have memories to look back on today?" I click on that notification hesitatingly, because more often than not, I wince at what I see. Oh my goodness--I used to write the most ridiculous things on Facebook. I guess everybody did, but many of my old posts reveal the ethnocentric, immature attitudes I had in my early years in Tanzania.

Complaining about electricity. Complaining about bugs. Complaining about dust. (Meanwhile, hoping that my friends back at home would realize what I saint I was for putting up with these "hardships.") Having a "white savior" mentality. Poking fun at the "amusing" things I saw in your country, many times arrogantly implying that, given the circumstances, I could do things so much better. Pointing out a lot that was wrong, and not enough that was right.

Ugh. How did you put up with me? Or, now that I know better, I should ask, How do you put up with me? Since I probably haven't changed as much as I think I have.

I was chatting with a Tanzanian co-worker (and friend) the other day, and we got onto the topic of missionaries and money. Even though this friend grew up around missionaries, she was fascinated to hear about how missionaries receive financial support from churches in their home countries. "I think a lot of the Tanzanians at Haven of Peace Academy have just assumed that you were getting paid more than we are," she told me. My jaw dropped to the ground, because HOPAC doesn't pay missionary teachers at all--we get a housing stipend, but not a salary. I immediately felt sick to my stomach. How many of our Tanzanian friends, for how many years, have assumed that we are getting rich off of their country?

Because here, though we live on support from back home, we are rich. Western missionaries in African countries live in this weird place where in our home countries, we are considered poor (like, churches invite us to use their food pantries which are for poor people), but when we are in Africa, we are incredibly privileged. Just the fact that we own a car and a couple of laptops and have the money available to fly back and forth between countries puts us in the top one percent wealthiest people in the world.

We wrestle with this tension all the time. But the truth is, as much as western missionaries come to Tanzania with this idea that we are "sacrificing" to be here, we really are vastly richer (both in money and opportunity) than almost all of the people who live here. So I can't imagine how annoying and condescending it must feel to you when we gripe about insignificant things that you have contentedly lived with your entire life.

We must seem pretty wimpy.

But that's not all. We came to your country with our own ideas about what you needed, not bothering (for a while, at least), to even ask you what you did need. We assumed that you needed us, without considering that we actually needed you even more. We had strategy meetings where we didn't include you; we wasted time and resources because we didn't ask for your help. While we were still figuring that out, you loved us anyway.

One Sunday at our African church, the pastor preached a message on the importance of missions. We were technically the only "missionaries" in the room, though I understood the message as a call to the whole congregation to be involved in mission work. Nevertheless, after the service, an African woman who I didn't know came up to me with an envelope of money. "God bless you for your service," she told me. I was speechless. It remains one of the most humbling moments of my life.

Then there's the problem that missionaries can be cliquish. Missionaries tend to gravitate towards each other, to friendships that are familiar and easy. A Tanzanian once told me, "The missionary community is hard to break into." I don't blame you for being hurt or offended by that. It shouldn't be that way. And yet, you chose to be my friend anyway.

I'm sure there are some of you reading this who would want to remind me of the good things missionaries have done in your country. You tend to be incredibly gracious. I'm not writing today to make a case for burning down missions. I'm not saying that my time here--or that of my fellow missionaries--is a waste. But there does tend to be an aura of sainthood that surrounds missionaries--both here and in our home countries, and I've had enough of that.

We are weak. Sometimes we are idiots. Sometimes we are downright arrogant and ethnocentric. Coming to that realization is really good for us, and should make us more effective.

We love your country, and we love you. Thanks for loving us, being patient with us while we learn, and gently helping us to see things from your perspective. We are so thankful for God's grace and your grace as we live out the privilege of being missionaries in your country.



P.S. I write for A Life Overseas, which reaches thousands of missionaries and expat workers all around the globe. I would love to write a piece that contains insight and constructive criticism from locals in communities that have received missionaries. If that's you, would you consider writing to me at everyoneneedsalittlegrace@gmail.com with answers to these questions? I won't use any names, so feel free to be completely honest.

In what ways have foreign missionaries been the most helpful and harmful to your community? 
What are some of the biggest mistakes you've seen missionaries make, and how could they avoid those mistakes? 

Or, if you are a writer and want to submit your own post to A Life Overseas, ask me how to do that too!

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