By Rick Chromey
Like most Americans, I love to spend, consume, and accumulate. But my whole outlook on capitalism and cash was turned upside down by just three weeks in Africa.
Americans are addicted to affluence.
We love our money. We hoard cash in retirement plans, savings accounts, and safe boxes. We love to spend and accumulate. We buy boats, Buicks, bikes, televisions, toasters, sofas, and super-sized stuff like it’s everybody’s business. We take grand vacations to exotic locales and pamper ourselves with spa treatments. Our garages are so full our driveways display a lineup that looks like a used car lot. Our storage sheds are the subject of TV surreality fare, along with hoarding, flipping, and picking.
Our consumerism might seem tame to many when compared to alcohol, drug, or sexual addiction, but let’s be brutally honest: many Americans, perhaps most Americans, can’t stop spending. Our economy depends on our bucks. When we spend, capitalism hums and everybody’s happier. We work for a paycheck to spend so the next guy gets paid.
I confess I’m addicted to spending and stuff, too. I’ve rented a permanent room in the bargain basement. I’m drawn inexorably to three-for-one savings, thrift shop deals, and closeout prices. My shelves sag beneath books, CDs, DVDs, Coca-Cola collectibles, and knickknacks. My home is a museum to me. Some people burn fuel in boats and bikes, I drain the gas tank in search of yard sale paradise (and the bragging rights for scoring big).
Hi, my name is Rick and I’m a spending addict. Like most Americans, I’m digging out of debt. I still want to ride high on the hog but now settle for wheels by Schwinn. My garage is piled full with stuff that makes me smile, like old magazines, record albums, a stash of Coke Zero (bought on sale), and camping equipment I last used in 2006.
Of course, if I’m not careful I can dig a financial grave: credit card damage, high interest, and minimum payments; legal letters and collections calls; guys named Guido packing a baseball bat. Everyone pays the piper. Most of us just do it in 60 months with 10 percent down.
Thank God for my African intervention.
I needed to learn hakuna matata. (The phrase, made famous in The Lion King, means “no worries” in Swahili. Live in the moment.)
Why Worry about Tomorrow?
Jesus actually said it first: why worry about tomorrow (Matthew 6:34)? Why fret about fashion or food? When we live in the future we miss the gift of today (aka “the present”).
For 18 days I went cold turkey on the backside of the globe, mostly off the grid in Marangu, Tanzania, hard against the slopes of mighty Mount Kilimanjaro. No Internet. No news. No phone calls. Few paved roads. Swahili television.
Despite all this, because our team was taken by van to our training meetings, I never felt more rich, famous, or white in my life. We drank only bottled water, washed our hands religiously, and shunned certain cuisine. We popped Cipro like candy to ward off bowel issues. If it wasn’t for Coke in a glass bottle—a steady stream of calories, caffeine, and comfort—I might not have survived.
I’m still addicted to Coke.
My June 2013 intervention was a training mission with a team of five Americans representing KidZ at Heart International (based in Mesa, Arizona). We trained pastors and Sunday school teachers in leadership and creative education strategies. While most American teams dig wells, build churches, and lead Vacation Bible Schools—and these are respectable missions as well—our labor allowed us to significantly impact and influence churches throughout the Kilimanjaro district.
I went to Africa to serve.
I never expected to have my soul dissected.
But I did. When I stepped off the plane outside muggy Moshi and traveled more than an hour to the jungle village of Marangu, everything changed. Now as I reflect on my nearly three-week African experience, I see I learned some valuable lessons.
The Separation of Want and Need
Like most of the world, Tanzania is a cash and trade economy. Africans have no debts because no one lends money. It’s a zero-sum game. You eat because you bartered, begged, borrowed, or bought food. It’s truly survival of the fittest. From the moment the sun rises until it sets, everyone who can work is working to meet his needs. If someone wants something that isn’t a need, he saves to buy it.
In America we pursue wants and needs together.
We confuse the necessary with the nice, the important with the instant, and the essential with the extravagant. The average American owns two vehicles and will work two jobs to pay the loan. In Africa, it’s a transportation caste system. Most people walked. Many had bicycles. Some had motorbikes. A few owned cars. In fact, a car, house, and business were status symbols. Each of these things indicated you were rich.
Ironically, I recall no beggars. I encountered only sellers and traders. This might be unique to this neck of Tanzania, but handouts were rare. Tanzanians preferred a hand up. The truly destitute and disabled were served through their families and churches.
In Africa, a lack of Internet, television, and radio means less commercialization. Products are advertised, but only minimally. No commercials. No guys holding signs dancing on sidewalks. No billboards. No radio jingles. Rural Africans aren’t inundated and immersed in commercials. It’s more evident in cities like Moshi, Arusha, and Dar es Salaam.
Americans buy because we’re told to buy. We have to consume to keep the economy humming. Capitalism is grounded to greed. To quote Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street: “Greed is good.” The more people spend, the more money is pooled for new jobs, markets, and investment. Debt and easy credit only fuel irresponsible spending. Even our government stimulates economic growth through debt.
Love People—Use Things
Africans nurture relationships and community. What you own might define your cultural status, but it doesn’t frame your personhood. You matter simply because you’re human. You are a father or mother, brother or sister, son or daughter. You are a friend.
Consequently, I experienced Africans who shared and served with happy hearts. Hospitality was a gift to give. We were invited into homes for meals, blessed by gifts, and treated to unique experiences.
Africans focus on relationships, not ownership. Perhaps it’s because life, at least where I served, proves rather frail and fleeting. I was surprised to learn Tanzanians had no pets. They don’t name their dogs or feed them. Dogs scrounged for supper like everyone else. You never knew when your last meal might be your last meal. Consequently, Africans view stuff as temporary. Here today, gone tomorrow. The only thing permanent is relationship. Africans emphasize personhood and friendship.
As I wrote this piece, an opulent Kenyan mall was attacked by Islamic terrorists. I found it interesting that radical Muslim militants chose a mall for their deadly deed. Days after the massacre, 67 people had died, countless were wounded, and dozens more were missing. Malls are notoriously soft targets, but this particular mall was unique in Kenya and Africa.
The Westgate Mall in Nairobi is only about 130 miles north of Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Nairobi is a large city with Western ways. The Westgate Mall, a 350,000-square-foot, five-story tower to capitalism, is only six years old. Affluent Africans were particularly drawn to this swanky 80-store complex as a place to see and be seen. Marbled hallways. High-end tech and fashion. Upscale eateries. That it was a popular Western-style tourist trap only made it more attractive to terrorists.
The mall in many ways was everything old Africa isn’t.
I saw “old Africa” on my safari into Ngorongoro Crater. The long drive through rural Tanzania was dotted with Maasai villages. The Maasai choose to live “old school” like the American Amish. They dwell in huts, drive cattle, walk from place to place, and live like their forefathers. The Maasai, dressed in colorful garb, once known for their fierce warrior ways, are now fairly gregarious. Some have succumbed to technology, particularly the cell phone, but most still live “old Africa.”
The contrast between Westgate Mall in Nairobi and the rural villages I experienced in Tanzania was significant. Even when I traveled to more prosperous and populated places like Moshi and Arusha, opulence was rare. Most stores were small, family-owned, and dusty. One day in Himo I waited inside a cramped tech store for a friend. The shop was packed with computer monitors, small televisions, software, and other tech supplies. And yet, it was no Radio Shack. In fact, about half the store visitors weren’t buying. They just wanted to talk. Hakuna matata!
I returned from Tanzania with a fresh perspective on things.
In fact, it took me a few weeks upon return to find my balance. I had a form of cultural vertigo. I struggled with conspicuous consumerism and crass commercialization. My detox on Facebook, e-mail, television, and other visual media had reshaped my spirit. I felt more free to enjoy the moment.
I also found myself digging deeper to give something—anything—to the needy, the hurting, or the mission-minded. God has given me much. The least I can do is serve my fellow man and share my blessings. The greatest transformation is I no longer look at stuff as something I own, but rather as something I rent. God gives and God takes away. My money, home, car, or anything else is simply on loan.
I’ve also slowed down. I listen more, talk less (or try). I enjoy the little moments I used to overlook. I value people and use things, rather than use people and value things.
Yes, I still struggle with consumerism. As the days and months separate me from my African experience, I’m like any addict in recovery. I continually ask myself, Is this a want or a need? If it’s a need then God will provide, even if I don’t have the wherewithal. If it’s a want, then I can save until I have enough to buy it. No more debt and living on credit. I’ve also learned to barter. I’ll trade something I own for something I want.
Sure, I still scour a flea market, thrift shop, yard sale, or pawn for a deal. I give myself a little play money each week to have some fun. In Africa, I learned from the lions it’s OK to hunt.
Even if it’s a dollar CD.
Rick Chromey is a leadership edu-trainer, author, and 30-year veteran in church ministry who empowers leaders to lead, teachers to teach, and parents to parent. His website is www.rickchromey.com.