Missionary Diary: My whole community responds to a personal attack

Tamie Davis and her husband Arthur are missionaries with Church Missionary Society (CMS) Australia. Arthur is staff coach with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES), which aims to share the gospel with university students. Tamie is doing a PhD on the theology of TAFES women graduates.

Recently I was attacked while walking along a beach near our friend’s place out of town. A guy who was working on his boat on the shore called out to me after we’d greeted each other when I walked past (essential in Tanzania), then followed me, grabbed me and stole my iPod (which is ten years old and incompatible with everything except my computer!). My dress was torn but I was physically unhurt, though pretty shaken. He ran off immediately.

The beach I was on has a reputation as a safe, quiet place. The small, close-knit community were horrified and immediately responded. This post is about their response. As one man said to me, “There are good people and bad people everywhere.” Let me tell you about some of the good and how that plays out in Tanzania.

The first thing is how many players were involved. There was my friend and her workers, who immediately ran up the beach to look for the guy, though he was long gone. There were the Maasai guards who patrol the beach (but were at a different part of the beach when I was attacked.) There were the police – six of them came on the day I gave my statement, including the chief inspector and a guy called ‘Words’ whose job was to write down my statement. (He wrote down my story in his words but in the first person as if I had dictated it, then I signed it.) Then there were dozens of local people who heard the story and checked in every day to see what progress had been made. The former police chief also heard and offered his assistance!

This event happened to a community; it was not just between me and the culprit.

All of this meant that the response to this incident was multi-faceted. It wasn’t simply a matter of reporting it to the police and then letting them handle it. Local networks have the knowledge and people on the ground and are often far more successful at following up for these reasons. In this case, this meant the culprit was caught within 24 hours! My friend’s workers laid a trap for him and were able to apprehend him through that! They asked me to identify him and then called the police. This is fairly common practice and it makes sense: the official police channels are still involved and the law abided by, but they allow local resources to be part of the equation. This is helpful for local people too because it means they get to be involved in putting right a wrong in their community.

Third, this event happened to a community; it was not just between me and the culprit. People felt their community had been besmirched and were worried it would get a reputation as unsafe, and the guy’s family felt he had brought shame on them. This meant that everyone was keen for it to be resolved. However, resolution was not based on his admission of guilt or my satisfaction for the wrong done. Actually, as far as I know, he never admitted guilt! His family did his behalf.

Similarly, I was not asked what I felt a suitable reparation would be until the negotiations were all but over. When a resolution had been reached, my representative came to me, told me he’d been acting as my representative and what the agreement was, to check if I was OK with it! His recommendation was that this was the best way for it to be over and for the community to move forward. It’s not that my personal desires didn’t count (that’s why he was checking with me), but neither were they the starting place or the terms on which the negotiation took place. This is not necessarily negative – by having a representative, I was shielded from having to undertake any of these proceedings myself (for which I was very thankful) and it was clear my representative cared about me and wanted to represent me well. While in an individualist culture you might expect this care to be expressed by acknowledging a person’s desires, in a collectivist culture, the care is expressed by putting yourself in their place.

One of the privileges of cross-cultural life is being cared for by a community.

Fourth, the focus was on the tangible. The family immediately offered to pay the value of the iPod. However, for me, the far more distressing thing was the attack – the feeling of having been unsafe, the incursion of person boundaries, my own helplessness, the violation of the ripped dress. I wanted some validation of that but it did not feature in the reparations. However, it would be too hasty to say that it was unacknowledged. The Tanzanian pole was offered to me many times.

One of the privileges of cross-cultural life is being cared for by a community who are not your own but who take you as one of their own. One of the challenges of that is that that care may be expressed differently to your own culture or preferences. In order to benefit from that care, you need the skills that we have tried to cultivate during our time in Tanzania: thinking flexibility, assuming there’s a reason for the way things are done and as far as possible, operating on local terms.