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.