Selfishness: A Perspective from African Culture

Justine, over at A Half Baked Life, recently wrote a thoughtful post about “Giving, and Giving Back.” She talks about how we sometimes weigh up what we receive with what we give and relates that back to blogging and our responsibility to one another in the online community. Her post got me thinking about an experience I had as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a small community in Zambia back in 1998 where I learned to look at give and take in a whole new light. The majority of the people that I lived with didn’t have a lot in the material sense, but they shared what they did have. This was definitely a community where there was always space for one more at mealtime. In addition to sharing food, people also reached out to welcome me and helped me learn the language and the culture. In return I helped out wherever I could – generally at the clinic, or the school, or with a women’s group.

One day I ran out of relish to eat with my nshima. Nshima is the staple food. It is made out of sorghum or maize flour that is cooked into a thick porridge until it is about the consistency of playdough. Relish is what you eat with your nshima. It could be green leaf vegetables, beans, chicken, fish, or meat. You roll your nshima into little balls and use it to pick up a bit of relish. I was without relish and instead of visiting a neighbor to ask for something from their garden, I dropped a bullion cube in some hot water and dipped my nshima in that to give it some flavor. While I was eating some of the neighbors’ kids stopped by and tasted my relish. They couldn’t keep the look of pure disgust off their faces and quickly excused themselves, only to return a little later with an enormous plate of mangos from the tree outside their house. I thanked them very much, discarded my dismal meal, and tucked into the tasty mangos. I didn’t think much more about it, but apparently word of my relishless nshima had gotten around.

A few days later I was visiting with one of my neighbors and she told me I was selfish. I was taken aback. I couldn’t think of anything I had done that could possibly make her consider me selfish, so I pushed her on it and asked what she meant. She pointed out that I never ask for anything, this was true as evidenced by the nshima story, but I still didn’t see how this had anything to do with being selfish. She explained that not asking for help was telling everyone around me that I didn’t want them asking me for help. I was denying them the opportunity, and the pleasure, of assisting me and that was selfish.

Her words really stuck with me, obviously since here I am writing about it well over a decade later. It was a really interesting take on sharing but once I thought about it, it made a lot of sense. I get a lot of pleasure out of giving, and my husband often laughs at the time and effort that I put into gifts. However, giving and receiving gifts is nothing like the feeling I get when a friend is comfortable enough to confide in me that they truly need my help. Being able to help when I am really needed gives me much more satisfaction than finding the perfect gift. If I deny family and friends the opportunity to do this for me, am I sending out the message that I don’t want to be there for them? It’s hard to ask for help, it’s hard for me to ask for help, and it’s also hard to accept help. I got much better at asking for help in the context of the Peace Corps which really helped me to integrate into my community, with the added bonus of never again having to eat another nshima and bullion cube meal, but I don’t think those words of wisdom have permeated my life post Peace Corps, and I wonder if at times I’ve suffered, or stood back while others suffer, because of it.

I think about the years that we tried to conceive and how alone I felt. I think about feeling like the gorilla in the room that no one wanted to mention baby or pregnancy to. There are some things that are difficult to talk about, especially with someone who hasn’t been there before, but I sometimes wonder how much of feeling so apart was because people didn’t want to talk to me about it and how much was because I had closed myself off to them assuming that they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, or shouldn’t help. By not asking for help was I being selfish and hurting them as well as myself? I remember feeling like everyone said the wrong thing but now, with some distance, I can’t remember any really terrible comments from my friends and family, just some from a really bad doctor. Did I deny people that I care about the pleasure of helping me though what was the most difficult time of my life to date, and by ignoring or rejecting subtle offers of support have I told them I don’t want to hear about what is hurting them?

I know I sometimes shy away from being there for family and friends because I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, I have quite a talent for putting my foot in my mouth, but do I also feel like I need to be invited to offer support? Do I expect them to ask when they need help? I didn’t ask for support but I truly appreciated every card, email, letter, and gift I received after my miscarriage, although I don’t remember if I ever said thank you. I have close family and friends that have been through really difficult times and because I’ve heard about it through the grapevine, and was told they didn’t want to talk about it, I never reached out to them.  While I can’t go back and change how I’ve given and received (or not offered or welcomed) support in the past, I hope to be braver and more mindful of this moving forward. I would like to be the person who extends a hand when support is needed even when it isn’t asked for, and I would like to be able to accept support and get over my own discomfort with that even when my first instinct is to refuse.


About Jody Tilbury

8 Responses to “Selfishness: A Perspective from African Culture”

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  1. Jo says:

    I love this post, J. It’s really thought-provoking.

  2. I love this post. I think sometimes it is harder to ask for help than to offer it, or even just accept it when it is offered. Thanks for getting me thinking.

  3. I love this alternative view to our culture’s stance on being self-contained. I do think that when you don’t ever ask for help, you are withholding yourself from the community, making it so that there can’t be give-and-take with you. People are as wary as all-takers as they are of all-givers

    This post will stay with me awhile. Thank you..

  4. Beautiful post! Thank you for sharing this story. It’s great food-for-thought this morning.

  5. My Spence says:

    Thank you! That is a very good and thought-provoking piece of writing.

  6. Kathy says:

    Joining the chorus of those who love this post. I know I am late in reading it, but never the less I appreciate it just the same.

    This part really struck me, as it did you at the time and in retrospect still:

    “She explained that not asking for help was telling everyone around me that I didn’t want them asking me for help. I was denying them the opportunity, and the pleasure, of assisting me and that was selfish.”

    Like Lori, your words here will stay with me when I click away tonight. So interesting and thought-provoking.

    I really enjoy your homeschooling lesson plan posts, but it is also nice to read a different kind of post from you. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Yogamama says:

    I hopped over from “adopting a culture” from nomad parents. I had a related experience in the states. I was trying to give a gift to friends who I thought were “needy” and they were happy to accept and wanted to share with me. Stupid me made some excuse why I couldn’t accept their hospitality and all of a sudden I felt terrible. I had turned a gift into condesension. Thankfully they forgave me & I never made that mistake again. Giving is a blessing no one should be denied.


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