Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Saying “Yes” To Jesus and “No” To Everyone Else

Living in Tanzania, we are surrounded by economic poverty. Some suffer more than others, but overall there’s no escaping the reality that a majority of people here struggle to make ends meet in some way, shape, or form. Whether it’s money for food, or for medicine, or for school fees, or to finish building their incomplete house, etc, most people could use help, pretty much everyone in Tanzania could use assistance, and compared to most folks here, Americans have relatively vast amounts of resources. While people also struggle in the United States (and certainly many people do), we’re talking about a more immediate need than most people in the US will face.

And there’s no escaping the fact that as White foreigners- “wazungu”- by default, we have more resources than pretty much everyone else we meet in the street. My decent but nothing-to-write-home-about yearly salary at my last job paid me about the equivalent of a few decades worth of an average Tanzanians earning power. That’s a hard fact to wrap your brain around, but it’s true.

And Tanzanians know this, so they will ask you for money. Anywhere. Whether they know you or not. Children always ask for money (or candy) and that’s easy enough to ignore. But what about the woman sitting on the street that has no feet. Or the man that walks on his knees because his legs are so twisted he cannot stand? They’re clearly in need. This morning I was walking to the hardware store to buy some nails and I passed an old man with a cane. He looked pretty rough. I greeted him with the respectful greeting for an older person, but the minute he saw me he reached out his hands and wordlessly pleaded for money.

But it’s even more of a request than that sometimes (many times, actually). It’s not begging for a few shillings, it’s directly asking you for substantial help. I met a woman several weeks ago who was speaking to me in Swahili. I could get a little of what she was saying but mostly I was lost. When she realized I couldn’t understand, she went and got one of my fellow missioners who could understand and used her a translator. It ended up that the woman, who I’d known for only a few minutes, was asking me to pay for all her children’s school fees (a legitimate request, I am sure). Liz, my fellow missioner, explained that that was not what we did.

Another time, I was sitting in downtown Musoma and a young guy came up to me, chatting, and it was quite pleasant, but it soon shifted to him asking me for 2000 Tsh (Tanzanian shillings) which I did not give. Here’s the thing: 2000 Tsh is about $1.30.

I’d just spent 3000 Tsh on a Coke and a cupcake as a treat for myself.

And this leads to one of the more difficult things about adjusting to life here. We came as missionaries. We are answering a call to go and serve other people, to be among the poorest of the poor and to help our brothers and sisters, but all I seem to be doing is saying “no.”

We have to be very careful not be establish ourselves as only a resource to be tapped for money, less a person than an ATM machine. (“Oh, look. A white person. I’ll go withdraw some cash.”) Our resources that we offer are our skills and our presence, and we want to be seen as part of the community, not simply as a “thing” with lots of money. This is especially true as we get set up in our own house. Katie and I both have had several people stop us at our front gate and ask for help. We say no. Kids ask us to come into our yards and pick fruit from our trees. We say no. And when clearly haggard, hungry old men ask us for money, we say no. And that’s hard.

I’m certainly not the first people to struggle with this, and we’ve received lot of advice on this. We had a whole day’s training on this very issue during our pre-departure training in Ossining, NY. We’ve heard stories of people giving money to people and immediately establishing themselves as “marks”. We’ve been told to never give assistance to anyone that comes asking for money at your house, and have heard horror stories about people that did and subsequently had lines of people at their gate every morning to the point where they eventually had to move to a new house because the requests were so overwhelming and nonstop. The missioners lost their ability to “be” with the people because all the neighbor saw was white skin and deep pockets (whether it was true or not).

When we were in NY, I asked a retired Maryknoll priest who had lived in TZ for decades what his one piece of advice would be to new missioners, and he said “Say NO to everything.”At least at first. He said to establish ourselves as community members with specific jobs, not as wealthy patrons that will simply set-up shop and dole out money to everyone that comes calling. The requests may be legit, but they will never end. We cannot solve everyone’s problems, so rather than wade into the difficult task of navigating this terrain in a foreign culture, “Just say NO to everyone.”

The point is not to be heartless, but simply to not set us up for failure. As strangers in a strange land, we really don’t know what we’re doing yet, so we need to protect ourselves, not from Tanzanians, per se, but from ourselves. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t care about people. We’re here for a reason- to help people- and we cannot undermine our effectiveness because we are sympathetic/empathetic people crushed under the weight of the problems we’re here to address. Using our time and talents, we’ll eventually establish relationships with people and then we’ll be in a better position to give our “treasure” in effective, more sustainable ways. But, man, it’s hard.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Now Here's A Little Story I've Got To Tell...

 As countless fans around the world try to come to terms with the death of a musical icon, Adam Yauch aka MCA of the Beastie Boys, I’m trying to figure out exactly how to describe why his death is such a loss to me, and I just can’t shake this one image that keeps popping up in my mind: a home recorded cassette tape, cracked in two but still improbably able to play in my tape deck, lying on the floorboard of my 1978 Chrysler Volare station wagon, with the words “Ill Communication” scrawled on the label. That tape, more than any other, epitomizes my senior year of high school, a tape that was played on endless rotation, and because of that association, is still my favorite of all the Beastie Boy albums.

When I think of the Beastie Boys, the first person I think of is Jeremy Mucha.’ It was with Jeremy that I first discovered the group and with whom I most often listened to the Beastie Boys while cruising around Vicksburg, MS in the Plaidwagon. I managed to see the group twice over the years, and both times I was with Jeremy. In high school, Jeremy, our friend Billy, and I were always together, but musically, it was definitely Jeremy and I that were a bit obsessed with the Beasties. We would spend hours just driving around at night, wasting gas, windows rolled down and singing at the top of our lungs.

At the news of Adam Yauch’s death, many people have been talking about how much their music means to them, many remembering how they listened to the B-Boys in elementary school when their first album, License to Ill, came out (in 1986). That’s not my story, however. I was a late bloomer to the Beastie Boys. I come from a family of major music buffs, but I was an odd duck about my music tastes. I mean, in the eighth grade I became obsessed with Jethro Tull. In ninth grade, I started listening to Tom Waits. And because we had a satellite dish (the big, old school ones) I could watch Much Music out of Canada and got into a bunch of Canadian bands. Because I had that music station, I did know that Beastie Boys, though not very well. Until the summer of 1994, when the video for “Sabotage” went on heavy rotation.

Ill Communication was released the summer before my senior year, and that summer, 1994, was the first time I ever listened to a Beastie Boy album all the way through. It was not long after that I had all their albums (only four at the time). I had posters, key chains, video collections, I even had a unopened bottle of Brass Monkey on my shelf.

So the Beastie’s became the default soundtrack to my senior year and onward into college. In college, any time my crew (in particular, Lynny, Lucas, and Ian) would get into a car, someone would always yell “Parts!” and we would divvy up who gets to sing the different verses of the band, and we’d inevitably have a B-Boy sing-along. I always took MCA. He was always my favorite. I’m not sure why. Somewhere out in the world, there’s a tape floating around of a bunch of us lip-synching to “Paul Revere” in the Hinds Community College cafeteria.

Skip ahead a few years, and in 1998, the Beasties released Hello Nasty, which is a good, but honestly very strange record. I got to see them again on this tour, once again with Jeremy but also with my dad in tow, because by this time he’d also become a pretty big fan of the group (because my dad was awesome like that). Here I sit writing this, 15 years later, and I think about us three standing there at the show, watching MCA jump around on stage, and having no idea of the profound impact cancer would have on the life of all of us. My father’s and now Adam Yauch’s lives cut short, gone due to cancer, Jeremy’s family having recently had a very big cancer scare, and me sitting here wishing I could talk to my dad about what a huge musical loss MCA’s death is. He’d totally be down for that conversation.

Over the years, the Beastie Boys put out several more good albums (not great, but good) and I enjoyed all of them, but none so much as their last album Hot Sauce Committee, Part 2 (and sadly, I expect this WILL be their last album). I love this album, from start to finish, and think it’s one of their best. For a band that had hit their 25 year mark, they had no business putting out an album as good as that, and it speaks to the seemingly limitless talents the three group member’s had. I was stoked to know they were back in full force and was looking forward to seeing what they did next.

But it is not to be. I am not na├»ve about death, but dammit, I was hit hard by this. Cancer gets to me anyway, but this was like the death of part of my youth- in fact, one of the best parts of my youth. I know that in the grand scheme of things, one singer’s death pales in comparison to the massive tragedies that happen around the world. But no one wants the painful reality of death to come crashing into their party music. The Beastie’s music is so full of life, I cannot imagine that one is now dead. And I was telling Katie last night that, for a small town Mississippi boy, the Beastie Boys were a major part in forming my mental image of what New York City was like. Now, I’ve lived in NYC since those Mississippi days of dreaming of the hip, big city, and it’s strange to me that it now feels as though part of New York City has died for me. 

So RIP, Mr. Yauch. I didn’t know the man. He was famous, I was the fan. But I just want to give a shout-out to my favorite Beastie Boy, MCA, and thank him for his music’s role in my life. I have all their albums on my iTunes and still regularly play them, but that music just never sounds as sweet as it did on that old, cracked cassette tape all those years ago.