Sunday, April 27, 2014

Customs vs. Contracts

One of the more interesting (and often frustrating) aspects of living in Mwanza, Tanzania, is that we are often firsthand witnesses to the clash of cultures between African norms and Western norms. Mwanza is the second largest city in Tanzania (by population) but in many ways it is still a big village. The vibe of the city isn’t really “urban” at all. The city has grown tremendously over the last few years, so you very often see people interacting in “traditional” ways that are at odds with the more formalized, often Western-influenced, ways of doing things.

Please note that I am not breaking this down into “traditional” vs. “modern” because it isn’t that simple. If there are certain cultural practices happening at this time, regardless of whether they are new or based on traditions hundreds of years old, they’re modern, ie, of the present time. 

The following is an anecdote that happened just this last week that perfectly illustrates this issue of conflicting systems. In Tanzania, in general, when a Westerner rents a house, they are expected to pay an entire year’s rent upfront. This likely doesn’t apply to Tanzanians who rent a single room, but for those who have the means to do it, that is the typical request. Having property is a way of making money quickly, so folks want to get as much as they can to pay off debts and finance projects, weddings, funerals, etc. This is fine, but that means we are expected to pay out a good chunk of cash in one pop. In general, that means paying the equivalent of around $2000 - $2500 for the year (which is cheap compare do the US but still a good chunk of cash for a missionary stipend).

Here in our neighborhood of Mabatini, there are three of us that rent adjacent property from the same landlord. David and Caitlin rent a house, Brother Mark Huntington rents an office space for a local health clinic, and we rent our house right next door. Brother Mark has rented for several years, the Rossers have rented for two, and we just finished a year here. Other than minor issues here and there, there have been no major issues.

And then our landlord died. One month before all of our leases were up for renewal.

In the mix with us Maryknollers that rent the property are the three sons of the deceased landlord. The Rossers live next door to one, we share a duplex with another, and there’s a third that lives somewhere nearby.

When the landlord died, we expressed our condolences, we went to visit the family, we gave a small financial contribution as is expected in this culture, especially since the landlord was a well-known figure in the region (he was a former big-wig in local government).

After a few weeks, the brothers showed up at David and Caitlin’s house with a new lease and asked that he sign it and pay the year’s rent. The lease still had the name of their deceased father on it, so David, as would anyone familiar with contracts, politely told them that he was not signing a new contract with a dead man. He asked them who the new landlord would be. One of the brothers assured him it would be him so it was OK to give him the money. David politely asked when the will would be read and when they could get him new documents to verify the new landlord. They replied “Oh, the will is going to be read in one year.”


Now, to interject a little. I have heard two versions of this cultural practice, and I’m not sure which is correct. The family are not from the Wasukuma people we generally live amongst; they are Wahaya. There are plenty of them around, but they are a minority around here. One version said that it’s customary to wait a year to read the will and divide the property (not sure why, though). The more detailed version is that the length of time needed to read the will is designated by the deceased.

Regardless, we were told there would be no new landlord until early 2015.

We told them that this could be a real problem.

So the brothers then went to Bro. Mark and evidently told him that David was refusing to pay his rent (while still on a lease that was not yet expired). Bro. Mark promptly set them straight and explained that he, too, wasn’t going to sign a lease with a dead man.

The brothers were flummoxed and seemed truly thrown for a loop that we were reluctant to pay.

Next, the firstborn son (a son that has done some sketchy things in the past) showed up with a handwritten document tamped by the local neighborhood leader verifying that it was OK to pay him the cash and that we should pay up promptly. Seeing that we had had issues with this son in particular in the past (minor issues, but shifty nonetheless) we explained that we weren’t willing to pay him based on a hand-written note when someone could show up in a month with ANOTHER hand-written note saying THEY were the rightful owners and that we should pay THEM. We weren’t willing to risk being caught having to pay twice. (If the one brother spent it all and the new landlord demanded money, we’d almost surely be expected to pay again; in matters of money, the “wazungu” will always be expected to come up with more money.) The brothers assured us this would not be the case.

A few weeks later, a new hand-written document arrived declaring someone else the executor of the estate. Exactly as we so wisely anticipated.

So next the executor, the three brothers, and David, Bro. Mark, and myself all met to hash things out. We go around the room explaining our issues and making our demands. We are willing to pay month-to-month. They won’t hear of it. They want a year’s lease. We tell them it is out of the question. Round and round it goes for over two hours.

Now, I want to say a few things about this meeting. Charles, the executor, is a cousin of the deceased, and he was really solid. He truly acted as an arbitrator and didn’t side only with his family. Secondly, I really feel for the brothers who found themselves in these circumstances. Their father evidently had a tremendous amount of assets (ie, property, cattle, etc) spread out across the country. Due to the custom of waiting a year to divide the assets, the assets were basically frozen. They couldn’t sell anything off to pay of debts, nor could they make any real changes to the estate. They basically have to keep things going as they were but without their father’s resources. Two of the three brothers don’t even have steady jobs. So they were honest when they said they wanted us to sign a year lease because they needed to get their hands on as much cash as possible. They were scrambling to find money.

All in all, after consulting with a lawyer, we agreed that the Rossers and Reids would sign six-month leases and Bro. Mark would sign a three-month lease.

We met at a lawyer’s office this week to formally sign the new contracts. When we explained the circumstances to the lawyer, he advised we only sign a month-to-month lease. This of course, set the brothers’ family off again as they said we gave our word (only partially true) and that this wasn’t the way estates were handled in their tribe and that they had a piece of paper signed by the family elders that showed that the executor could sign these documents etc… The family was stunned when the lawyer told them that that piece of paper they had was good, but it wasn’t ENOUGH and that it wouldn’t hold up in court. Anyway, after 3.5 hours (!) we had reached a good compromise and we had signed leases.

Anyway, while it was annoying and stressful for all parties involved, it was a fascinating event to see play out.

My Tanzanian boss sits on the Land Tribunal for the Mwanza region, meaning any disputes over inheritance or tenant issues comes before her court. She says probably 75% of the cases she sees involve a clash between traditional inheritance customs and legal contracts. She says that very often people with legitimate rights to land are thrown off the land or challenged by the family of the deceased (which is generally the family of a husband that has died and whose family now wants to split the estate between his family with no regard to her claims). And my boss says 100% of the time the court sides with the individual with a legal, contractual claim to the land- often to shock of the family making the traditional claim.

When I told my Tanzanian boss the details of the case and that it would take a year, she promptly said “Well, that custom is ridiculous. How can anyone insist on something like that these days. Our country doesn’t work like that anymore.” It’s an interesting conundrum: I assume most of the people making traditional claims are not at all familiar with the legal statutes of the formal system. They are not WRONG to make their claim. But Tanzania does have a legal framework, so WE were not wrong in our hesitancy to sign a contract under these circumstances (and the lawyer backed us up). Clearly more education is needed, even if it is at the expense of certain aspects of more traditional systems.

Not sure of the answers here, but the problems are clear enough.

What are your thoughts? Sociologists / Anthropologists / Lawyers, I’d welcome your thoughts on a case like this.

Saturday, April 26, 2014


Happy anniversary to my lovely wife, Katie! She still makes me jump for joy!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Happy Birthday to My Little Sister!

Reflections On Rwanda

[Trigger warning: there are some horrible things discussed in graphic detail below. If you are inclined to avoid that type of stuff, I suggest you stop reading here.

April 6th, 2014 was the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide, a 100-day campaign that saw the slaughter of 800,000+ people and was only halted when an invading militia successfully stopped the carnage. As anyone who has studied modern African history knows, or even anyone that has just watched Hotel Rwanda knows, the Rwandan genocide was fast, calculated, and unbelievably violent, the culmination of years of hateful vitriol spewed by the Hutu majority at the Tutsi minority. I’m not going to discuss the genocide in great detail in this post; it’s well-documented, and many people have discussed the events with more eloquence that I can. Ive included several links throughout this post for further reading by those with more expertise on the subject at hand. But I do feel compelled to share some thoughts and relate a few personal stories from my visit to the country.

Katie and I, along with Katie’s dad Garry and stepmother Holly, visited Rwanda in July 2013. Let me say first and foremost: Rwanda is a beautiful, welcoming country. The people are not monsters; they are just people, albeit people with a terrible history. I loved Rwanda, but it is a country of great paradox: astounding beauty intermixed with this tragic legacy. I posted pictures of the gorillas and the landscapes, but I kept mum on anything that dealt with the genocide. I needed to process it more. I just didn’t know what to say. It was a lot to process.

I have personally done a lot of research on the Rwandan genocide. But reading about the genocide pales in comparison to seeing the bones of the victims in front of you. Or to seeing picture after picture of the victims displayed in exhibits, the photos brought to be part of these memorials by the survivors so that their family members would not be forgotten. Or to hear the wails of a woman pierce the walls of the Genocide memorial in Kigali, full of a grief that two decades had yet to heal. It is hard to imagine, as we walked down the city streets of Kigali, greeted by friendly passersby, that less than two decades before the same streets were filled with the bodies of innocents slaughtered simply because of an ethnic rivalry that wasn’t even a salient difference a few decades before that, created and exacerbated by colonial meddling.

To Rwanda’s credit, they do not whitewash their painful history. There are genocide memorials in pretty much every town we visited, and these memorials drive home how wide-spread and far-reaching the genocide was. Katie and I were fortunate enough to visit four memorial sites during the week we were there. We visited the the Kigali Genocide Memorial in the capital city, the most formalized museum to address the event. It is one of the most potent and powerful museums I’ve ever seen. As I said earlier, I'm familiar with the events and the atrocities, but holy hell there were some images in that museum I hadn’t seen before, images and stories that I will never forget it.

In the days leading up to our being joined by Katie’s dad and step-mother, we had some time to sight-see, so we hopped on a bus and headed out to some memorial sites. We cruised about a half hour out of Kigali, then hopped on motorcycles to visit the two church sites where massacres occurred. These two churches are still filled with the items and belongings of those that were massacred. At the Nyamata site, a church where people sought refuge from the killings, it was 10,000 people killed as they huddled inside; at the Ntarama site, another church, 5000 people were killed. At these sites there are rooms displaying skulls and piles of bones, as well as glasses, old clothing, pots, pans, anything that people brought with them assuming they would return home in a few days time. The walls are full of bullet holes, one wall at one site had holes from grenades, and one site had a big black stain on the wall that we were told was made by brains and blood of children. All these things serve as physical reminders what happened. One day these items will wither up and be gone, but for now, they just sit there, unmoved. Photographs were not allowed in the buildings, but you could photograph the outsides.
A few days later, Katie and I and her parents visited a site called Murambi, a site where approximately 40,000 people were murdered as they sought refuge on the compound of a technical school. This site is one the country’s most shocking and powerful memorials: 24 rooms full of mummified bodies, preserved and bleached white by lime. There’s no glass case or velvet rope separating you from the dead; the rooms are just full of tables with the bodies spread out on top of them. You can tell what some of them looked like. Some still have hair. Some are babies. I went in 6 rooms and decided that was enough. At this site, our guide was a man who survived the genocide, though his father, mother, and several younger siblings did not. He calmly recounted his memories- I will not repeat them here- and we just listened in stunned silence. Katie’s stepmom, Holly, finally asked if he ever got angry about hat happened to him. He simply replied that his surviving younger brother now had a master’s degree, that he himself was married with children and was living on the land where his parents were murdered. “The best revenge is success,” he told us. “I’m alive and my life is good. There’s no reason to be angry.” Astounding.

I found myself walking the streets in Kigali and the villages around some of the parks we visited and looking at each person I passed and thinking “They’re old enough to remember. I wonder how many loved ones they lost?” These thoughts continued for several days, until suddenly a switch was flipped in my mind and I realized with a chill that these people smiling at me as I passed might not be survivors, but perpetrators. Maybe they didn’t kill someone themselves (but maybe they did?) but perhaps they aided and abetted the “genocidaires” in the rampage. How do they rationalize what they did? How can they live with themselves? And how can survivors again become neighbors with those that treated them as enemies?

Well, that’s the big question, and one that is providing remarkable stories of forgiveness. As this is the 20th anniversary, there are a number for stories about how both victims and perpetrators come to terms with their shared histories. Here are a few articles that address the process of reconciliation and the enduring trauma from which many survivors still struggle. Obviously, the aftermath of an event a traumatic as this is difficult and takes time and energy to recover, to heal from wounds both physical and mental, to turn neighbors that became enemies back into neighbors. To even attempt this type of social recovery from trauma is impressive. Time will tell if the process can truly heal old wounds. Twenty years or not, these wounds are still fresh and deep. Below are several articles addressing this issue:

Portraits of Reconciliation, by Susan Dominus, New York Times Magazine, April 2014

How Rwandans Cope With The Horror of 1994, by Lauren Wolfe, The Atlantic, April 2014

Unreconciled Rwanda, by Katie Magiro, for, April 2014

Regardless of what the future holds, the turnaround of Rwanda is an amazing story. When the genocide ended twenty years ago, around one million were dead, and several millions had fled to neighboring countries such as Zaire and Tanzania, meaning almost half the country’s population was either dead or in exile as refugees. The government was non-existent and had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Today, Rwanda has had steady growth in its GDP, Kigali is a safe city with excellent infrastructure, and many people will tell you that the past is behind them and that the future is promising. It’s an amazing reversal of fortune. And a lot of that has to do with the leadership of Paul Kagame, the current president. But that leadership is a complicated story.

Kagame has been described as a “benevolent dictator.” Make no mistake: Kagame has a tight grip on his country. And while his accomplishments are impressive, making him one of the West’s most favored African leaders, he is not without his critics who make some pretty serious charges against him ("benevolent" is not a word they would use). Below are two articles that critique his time as President as well as delve into his involvement in other regional conflicts. He’s a complex figure, and these articles are worth a read.

The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman, by Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times Magazine, September 2013

The Case Against Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, by Howard W. French, Newsweek, January 2013

A few final thoughts: One of the major criticisms that is (rightfully) lobbed at the major players on the world’s stage is that the United Nations (and especially the West) did not intervene when there was clear evidence of what was to come. Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN Peacekeepers on the ground in Rwanda in the momths prior to and during the genocide, repeatedly attempted to spur the UN and other nations into action because he had reliable information about a planned extermination; the United Nations took no real action based on the information Dallaire provided. (Again, the genocide was a long, calculated undertaking, starting years before the actual killing began with the training of the interahamwe, which were essentially murder militias).

Hindsight is 20/20 and numerous world leaders (from President Clinton to Kofi Annan at the UN) have stated their remorse at their lack of action. (And let’s not talk about France’s complicated role in the events; Rwanda  has a very bad relationship with France, as France armed and trained the Hutu military prior to the start of the killings). But I’m not really sure that major international intervention would have stopped the killings. It definitely could have saved hundreds or thousands of lives- of that I am sure- but I cannot imagine that simply putting peacekeepers on the ground would have erased the level of hatred that had been bred in the country. An intervention years before could have made a difference, but by the time outsiders realized what was happening, the damage was done. When I was visiting the genocide museum in Kigali, I was struck by just how deeply the “rot” had penetrated the entire culture of Rwanda by the early 90’s. It makes me wonder if there was any way to truly reverse the course that the country set for itself without the explosion of violence that happened, or if the only way the country could purge itself of its illness was to tear itself apart and then take a hard look at itself in the mirror and recognize the horror it sees in its reflection.

Luckily, with these genocide memorials in every town across the country, for better or not, there’s quite a lot of mirrors into which people- both victims and perpetrators, as well as the rest of us- can gaze.  

Monday, April 07, 2014