1,000 shillings = 50 cents

1,000 shillings = 50 cents

Moses is starting to learn about money and is fascinated by American money. He says it looks ‘so cool’. He wants to take it to the local duka ‘small shop’ and buy soda and snacks, and as we explain that’s not how it works and proceed to detangle or muddle the world for him (given your perspective), it lends itself to a moment of personal incongruity. Out of the mouth of babes – so many simple questions necessitating parental ducking and diving. Our conversation takes a left turn, and then another left and Moses is back at his original conclusion that American money is better because it can go farther and he only wants American money. As we try to walk him back, I realize the moment is getting away from us as we try our best to persuade him that Tanzanian shillings are significant; they are valuable. Whew. The mental gymnastics of trying to teach an economic exercise that runs counter to the deduction of an 6-year old. 

Our point was different doesn’t mean better or worse. The shillings we carry around reflect the value the world has placed on an economy – that’s it. We are here alongside our neighbors and we see how hard people work for 2,000 shillings. We see the human cost. They pull 4-wheeled wheelbarrows piled high with construction materials. They break rocks (BREAK ROCKS!) for 12 hours a day. They spend all day sweeping sand off the roads as cars zoom by bellowing it up and passing it off to the wind to juggle. And we see how far 1,000 shillings can go. It can buy a local meal of ugali, 10 20-liter buckets of water, 2 sodas, or bus fare around town. It’s amazing how far it can stretch. I appreciate that I can give 1,000 shillings to someone and it means something. Try giving an American 50 cents.

The proper conversation requires a philosophical shift towards inequality – that ugly word whose effects reverberate even louder. And that discussion is unpalatable enough for us adults, thus better left hidden in the basement for a later date for a little boy. A higher per capita GDP does not mean God blessed one nation more than the next because it was more faithful (hello prosperity gospel). Money doesn’t value people, and more money only means you’re more prosperous in material things.  Every person has intrinsic value derived from being formed in the image of God by God, and even as the world powers shuffle countries and their citizens into socioeconomic and geopolitical queues, we cannot let ourselves be coddled into regionalists. We, human beings, have the tendency to unconsciously believe that our place of origin or residence brings us additional value that other people lack. But, bring it down to your eye level. Think of the Asian-you, Latino-you, African-you; look ‘em in the eye and see the you of another land. All the potential, all the capability, all the talent – stultified by a country code; hauling 100 kg bags of maize for 5,000 shillings a day. What will you do for 5,000 shillings ($2.50) a day? Different doesn’t mean better or worse. Don’t be deceived by your USD; the African-you works just as hard, but just lives closer to the ground, and somedays I promise, it feels like heaven is just a little bit closer to us here as the sun beats down on the backs of the people as they toil to put food on the table. And His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ (Matthew 25:23)

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