Wealth is disease and I am the cure!

by zunguzungu

Says the outlow in that David Bromberg song that’s goingthrough my head. Anyway:

Everyone here is friendly. In the village, people will look at you with a sort of corner-of-the-eye, questioning look; you are, after all, an Mzungu and they’re surprised to see you, and probably a little on guard. But if you greet them correctly, and especially if you speak a little swahili, you will be told “Karibu” (welcome) and they’ll mean it: you’ll be invited to have chai, have food, have hospitality, sometimes more than you’re prepared for (or have time for). The Maasai are insanely friendly, almost every single one I’ve met. In town, things can be different, but you’ll still be assaulted by friendliness: because Arusha is at the center of the tourist triangle of death (Kilimanjaro, Seregeti, Ngorongoro), from every direction will come people wanting to be your friend and wanting to sell you something. Now. Are these things different? That’s the dilemma.

When I first arrived in Arusha, it wasn’t clear how much it was going to be to stay with the family of my student Aurelia. When I was here last time, a room and dinner was 2000 shillings a day, something like 2 dollars then. Anton, who was already staying there, was theoretically paying 4000 (though was not wholly clear, and was in some obscure way still under discussion), and if I was going to share a room with him (and at that point it seemed like we might have to share a bed for a while) that would probably be reduced a bit for each of us. But how does one determine it? Prosper was going to talk to Baba Aurelia (a parent is quite often called by the name of his or her child) but apparently hadn’t and the expectation was that I would move in and we would figure matters later. So, that’s what I did. I had picked up a “spice boat” (a sort of wooden boat filled with lots of different spices) and Zanzibar, and I presented it to Mama Aurelia as a gift, thinking in the back of my mind that this might soften our negotiations a little. But that day I was outfoxed: when I returned from school in the afternoon, Baba Aurelia and the lads had rearranged the room so that we each had our own beds, arranged with mosquito nets, two chairs out on the semi-private porch the room looked out onto and a nice little table in the middle of the room. I was well softened up; what a nice family! Four thousand a night suddenly seemed like a bargain (and by any reasonable wazungu standard, it is, after all).

This is how things work, I think. You can’t quite separate business and relationships, the way we tend to presuppose in the west. One spends money building friendships which will help you make money which will help you build an even larger networks of relationships. Political theorists and anthropologists have elaborate theories about this sort of thing (African “client networks” and so forth), but it isn’t particularly a foreign concept; even in the states, is any gift purely selfless and is any business relationship truly nothing but business? The phrase “It’s just business, nothing personal” is usually a way of apologizing to someone you’ve just screwed–that is, implicitly acknowledging that you’ve crossed a line. And even within the tightest circles of friends and families, don’t we still calculate what we’re getting out of them, don’t we still get bitter if we think we’re being used or unappreciated?

But when NGO’s are coming to Tanzania, they tell people over and over again that they need to learn to separate business from family, biashara from ujamaa. While we live in a time when globalization and private enterprise are almost totally unquestioned, Tanzania has a history of “socialism” that still has real resonance in people’s lives. For Nyerere, the country’s first president and architect of the Tanzanian state as it is now, “socialism” was not something imported from abroad (and he never used the word when writing in swahili) but a sort of rough English translation of the word “Ujamaa,” which is sort of like saying “familyness” or “socialness.” Nyerere insisted that the state had to built on this basis, on the idea of selfless communalism, and much of the credit for Tanzania’s stability and, if not its prosperity, at least its peace, has to go to this incredibly influential and, for a while, successful effort. But the NGO’s that Liz was studying in Lushoto would insist, over and over again, that Ujamaa failed. Partly this was to convince people not to trust their government, not to think that their government owes them anything, or that it should be allowed power to regulate the economy (all things that Ujamaa stressed) but to rely only on themselves as business entrepreneurs. And the way you become a businessperson, they said over and over again, is by separating your business from you private life. If your neighbor comes to ask for some corn from your fields, you can give it to them from your private store, but you can’t give to them from the corn you are planning to sell. Business (biashara) has to take precedence over sociality (ujamaa). In practice, its not clear that anyone actually does this; traditions that wealth implies responsibility run deep, and however the NGO’s that export training in modern capitalism imagine they are impacting the locals, I have yet to see anything that would indicate that any of it is anything but a racket that preaches to the already converted. The way the Ubiri womens group sent the villagers (who were most likely to disagree from this whole business-first approach to life) home the day before the business training began is a case in point: everyone there already agreed with everything that was said.

And I’ve been thinking a lot about the way I, myself, think the same way. This began the other day, when I was told that all white people are liars, but its a constant problem: how do you react to people that are utterly friendly, but ultimately want something from you? Often times, you will receive a legitimate service and the money you might spend, buying whatever they want, is at least partially offset by whatever deal they’ve managed to get you, not to mention that you end up with the trinket itself, a thing which you’ll value much more than they will. That sounds to me a lot like the way some traditional modes of redistributing wealth actually worked: if you had money, you traded it for prestige by inviting everyone around to a big meal and, in the process, everyone got something. You got a title, prestige, a “client network”; everyone else got a free meal. So when people approach me around the clock tower (wazungu central) and want to be my friend, and I think to myself, “Is this person for real? Or is this person just using me to get something?” am I, perhaps, missing the point? Is it possible to be friendly and want to make some money off someone? And is that so terrible? The best relationships are often the ones where both people reach for the check, where you’re angry at your friend because they’ve given you a better gift than you’ve given them, and by competing for who can give rather than get the most, you are, if not completely un-selfless, calculating that things will even out in the end. And maybe that’s how it works with Mama and Baba Aurelia: we give each other gifts and treat each other well, and in the end, money turns out to be the thing that brings us together rather than keeps us apart.