My sister gave me some wise advice just before we left for Tanzania. It was to make sure that when we came back from our time away that we would have with us some simple things to remember what we had seen. It is so easy to forget what had once appeared so brightly in the mind on first appearance. The small things, the simple things are what our days are made up here. This past Saturday, for instance, I celebrated my 41st birthday. In keeping in with what is now a disturbing (for me at least) family tradition, Monica conspired to celebrate me at a local meat market (my 40th birthday had been celebrated at a grocery store cafe in Bainbridge Island, outside Seattle). Thankfully I made it out alive and our kids got to celebrate their Dad among goats and cows and a few thousand other people finding us just a little odd. The feature of a birthday at the Msalato meat market is that you get to eat the meat you see walking around earlier in the day. They then grill it and bring it to your table along with roasted bananas and soft drinks in slender glass bottles. Here’s to my 42nd birthday. Perhaps by then I will have become a vegetarian.
Simple things punctuate our daily life here: mosquito nets, bucket baths, playing with stones and red earth, fending off ant attacks at the back door, eating the seemingly endless variety of dishes that contain pumpkins, emptying out our formidable array of water containers into water jugs that won’t sprain your wrist when you try to lift them, shopping for spices and vegetables at the local market and as Monica demonstrates in the picture above, doing the limbo at a friend’s kid’s birthday party. Every so often, the water runs dry or large insects join my evening read on the verandah, or it takes two hours to print out a sermon, and we can find ourselves wishing that the simple things were a little more complex in their capacity to meet our needs. Yet as the news reaches us from across the world of tragically strident murders in a Charleston church and the preacher-in-chief’s subsequent eloquent vision for a better America, we are reminded as was our President, that the amazing thing about grace is that it is discovered amidst the everyday wonders of life together, and that we take that life and each other for granted at our peril.
My oldest and I had the opportunity yesterday to explore how the simplest of things for us at home in California – salt – is the root of both survival and a deep anxiety for the future for villagers a couple of hours from where we are staying in Dodoma. The people there scrape salt deposits from the surface of the earth and filter a muddy solution that they then boil to leave behind purified salt. We went to the village with World Vision, the NGO that has been helping the villagers organize their industry. The process they currently use is causing significant damage to the local woodlands, and they know that as wood is getting harder and harder to find, the legacy they are leaving their children is tenuous. Beyond this concern, they are locked into an arrangement with middle men, who buy the salt from them and go on to sell it at ten times the price at the local markets, thus trapping them in poverty. It is the sort of economic exploitation seen across Africa. Tanzania is rich in natural resources. Incredibly so. Yet it is bound by patterns of economic transaction that hold it back from fulfilling its vast potential. Who knew that salt was such a complex web of givers and takers? Simple things made hard.
When Jesus reminds his followers that they are to be salt of the earth, in a way he asks them to recall that they too are part of creation. To spend these weeks in a country where my own people are part of the history of colonialism, it is sobering to bring to mind again how easily we deceive ourselves into believing that what is just is coterminous with what we think is right. It was such a deception that caused Dylann Roof to kill nine people in cold blood having listened to their study of the scriptures for an hour, and it is such a deception that brings us up short every time we forget that we are all salt of the earth in the end, and the simple truth that you and I belong to one another.