A friend of mine in Dar, a fellow expat, fell in love recently. I mean with a house. A beach house. If you met him you would agree that he really should live in a beach house. A cross between an Italian gangster and a southern California surfer, he’s like your groovy uncle David—always a little unshaven, a little shaggy, in board shorts and slightly unbuttoned shirts that show off his tan. In between sips of bubblegum pink Hibiscus iced tea, he described the Moroccan-style villa he’ll begin renting in January: high white walls, archways, gardens. Nestled among palm trees on a secluded stretch of beach in the south of Dar, the house sounds like it might have been airlifted from Marrakech.
My friend came to Dar to work in malaria. He’s part of a team trying to get life-saving medicine to poor people who need them. He told me he felt something deep inside when he saw the house for the first time. "Listen,” he said, “I'm not religious, but I feel blessed."
Maybe that sounds ridiculous—working in a poor country; living in a villa on the beach. Seriously? But his story is not that different from any of ours.
People from the West may endure frustrations (well-documented on this blog) when they come to countries like Tanzania to work, but most of the time, we are well taken care of by the institutions we work for. Compensation packages can be generous: hardship pay, per diems, massive housing allowances, shipments from home, the cost of education for your children (if you have children), cars, business class flights and other perks.
Not everyone receives packages like this, but many do. And even those who don’t, like me, still live behind walls. Protected from the outside. Weekends in the sun, the sand. Enclosed in our cars, distracted with our Ipods, busy on our blackberrys. Yoga after work, dinners out, Christmas shopping, a gym membership, the occasional pedicure, a massage….
The question is: is it wrong to live this way?
At a Thanksgiving potluck, I happened to sit next to a young man named Leo. Clad in a sporty green tee-shirt and sneakers, he reminded me of guys back home in DC. In the dim half light, while we listened to a leathery old Tanzanian guy strum some chords on a guitar, Leo told me that he originally worked as an electrician in Dar, but began volunteering with small European and American NGOs, and eventually, they hired him. Now he works with the volunteers they send over, helping them help Tanzania.
—What's the biggest thing people like me, who come here to help, do wrong, I asked?
Leo stretched his arms out and chuckled. —Well, he said, people get angry.
—What do you mean? I asked.
—They get impatient. If you come here, you have to live here.
But sorting out how to live here isn’t easy.
It was the end of the day and my roommate and I were sitting opposite each other at the dining room table, the ceiling fan blowing round above us, talking about life in Dar.
She confessed suddenly: I feel bad.
I asked: about what?
—About the poverty, she said. I don’t know why, but I just don’t feel it.
We’d make good Catholics, every one of us, all the guilt we feel, trying to sort out what it means to live here, while living differently from the poor. Serious consideration for the things we have and the way we live can be a good thing—it means we’re aware of and grappling with the dilemmas and inequities in our lives.
But on the other hand, say we “live simply”—does that automatically afford us greater understanding of the poor in Tanzania? Does that make us more authentic, more in touch? No. Not in itself. Sometimes, all it does is make us think we have the authority to judge the commitments of other expats who have nicer houses and bigger cars.
The other problem with hair-splitting attention to what is the best, the most tasteful, the realest way to live, is that sometimes, underneath the concern is a pesky little idea, a feeling lurking in the corner of our minds, that says: We are not like Them.
My mom worked in a grocery store all my life and my dad earned money as a carpenter. If you're a doctor or a lawyer, does it take some special understanding, some sort of "coming down" to “where they’re at” to understand people like them? And are the people further up the economic ladder really all that different?
If the lady I buy tomatoes from at the dhuka outside my house were suddenly to become rich, would she spend time biting her nails trying to get "close" to the poor? Does she see herself the way we see her?
Maybe my friend with the beach house is right: we should work hard, be humble about what we know, and be thankful for and enjoy, without shame, what we have.