April 30, 2021 TOPICS

Hard-nosed Tanzanian micromerchants offer a new concept for sharing

For this issue, we sat down with Professor Sayaka Ogawa of the Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences at Ritsumeikan University, who won the Kawai Hayao Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities and the Oya Soichi Nonfiction Award for her book entitled The Boss of the Chungking Mansions Knows: Anthropology of an Underground Economy. Professor Ogawa, who says her research in cultural anthropology “extends to anything,” has been researching people who make a living in markets and on the streets. What can we learn from the behaviors and values of Tanzanian merchants in Hong Kong? And what hints does the sharing economy they have established provide for communication in the era of the new normal?

“Even when you get duped, you’re impressed.” A look into Professor Ogawa’s unique fieldwork

In a word, Professor Ogawa’s fieldwork is unprecedented.
Professor Ogawa, who was researching the distribution of used clothing in developing countries mainly in Africa and the second-hand goods ecosystem, decided to employ an immersive research approach and actually live as a used clothing dealer in Hong Kong.
She zeroed in on identifying the values of Tanzanian merchants in Hong Kong, something that cannot be accessed without digging beneath the surface. According to Professor Ogawa, the value systems that these merchants apply to business differ from those of typical Japanese people.

She explains: “In Japan, I think business starts with the premise that it is natural to assume that merchants will be trustworthy. For example, when you buy something on Amazon, if the delivery is delayed or you receive something different from the image on the site, it will be recognized as a breach of trust by the vendor. In other words, the Japanese tend to believe that relationships without a fulfillment of trust are dangerous, so they attempt somehow to create a mechanism to ensure this trust.
On the other hand, the assumptions of the Tanzanian merchants I lived with were different. When trying to build relationships in a society with more than 120 ethnic groups and a mixture of different types of people, you don’t know who to trust at first, but you try to trust them anyway. However, this does not translate into a judgment like ‘this person is 100% reliable, but this person is 100% unreliable’, but rather a compromise like ‘this person may betray me to some degree but not more than that.’ Honing their social intelligence in this way is the basic strategy they apply to living among a diverse array of people.”

Professor Ogawa selling jeans in a market in Tanzania (2004, Tanzania)

Professor Ogawa also experienced the kind of relationship she just described when she went back to visit a Tanzanian she befriended on her research project and whose business she helped with. She said he was far shabbier looking than when she met him before and seemed to be having money troubles.

She recounts: “He told me that he was deceived by his friend and now awash in debt. When he told me how much he lost, it wasn’t a large sum of money, so I followed him and decided to help him pay back his debt. However, when I got to the lender’s house, he wouldn’t let me in.
It turns out, it was a drug trafficking den! But I have to admit, I was really impressed (laughs). If you really want money, the fastest way is to just take my wallet. But this is not how the Tanzanians operate. They tell bald-faced lies and get people to hand over what they can afford little by little. To me, this seemed somehow friendly.
It’s as if everyone is sussing each other out to determine the degree to which they can get away with their betrayals. I think it’s their mentality to view betrayal in terms of whether there was a sense of compassion or if the other person went easy on them.”

“Connections” created by tolerating uncertainty and not expecting too much

With Tanzanian merchants at the Chungking Mansions (2017, Hong Kong)

Of course, Professor Ogawa does not necessarily think that the communication style of the Tanzanians is better, but their values can be of reference to us in the sense that there are variations in trust levels.

She explains: “Tanzanians are very careful not to expect too much from each other. I think this is because they live in an extremely uncertain society.
Their businesses have ups and downs, and they travel between Hong Kong and Tanzania, which makes their personal relationships fluid. Some of the people they meet, they may never meet again. Among this backdrop, it would be a huge burden if they felt that a promise that was not 100% fulfilled constituted a betrayal.”

According to Professor Ogawa, when the Tanzanian merchants want to ask for a favor or request a consultation, they let that request or idea bounce around their network of contacts for a while. Many people will ignore the request without giving it a second thought. A business negotiation will begin when someone happens to react to a request.

“This may seem too uncertain to us, but for them, it is a system that works well. Even on Twitter, your follower numbers won’t increase if you don’t respond to anyone. This is why these merchants need to take turns listening to each other’s requests.
Their approach is one of offering assistance the next time around if it is a manageable amount or offering their help if they feel it is within the realm of what they can do. In this way, both their relationships and business opportunities expand when they have enough financial and/or emotional leeway to respond to a request. That’s how it works,” says Professor Ogawa.

Effortless sharing for the era of the new normal

Professor Ogawa expects that the communication styles of the Tanzanian merchants can reveal new values to us for the sharing economy, not just in terms of human relationships and business opportunities.

“In recent years, the concepts of sharing and sharing-based services have started to even permeate Japanese society. However, what we consider to be sharing is much different than what the Tanzanians consider to be sharing.
When the Japanese share, they tend to think about building personal relationships through sharing or creating a venues and rules to facilitate sharing.
The Tanzanians, however, end up sharing without having an infrastructure in place for sharing. Their approach is totally different. They achieve sharing by every person doing their best make something happen.
If you say things like ‘I shared something with you’ of ‘We are sharing something’, then I think you’re still at the stage where it takes an effort to maintain a sharing economy. Rather, I think it is possible to realize a more comfortable style of sharing by creating an atmosphere in which sharing happens naturally without being conscious of the act of sharing itself.”

There are no clear rules for effortless sharing. However, there may be more meaning in the simple human emotions that Tanzanian merchants demonstrate in their uncertain communities—emotions like leniency, affection, and empathy.

Professor Ogawa says she plans to dig deeper into research on currency and the gig economy going forward. It will be interesting to see what kind of values and communication styles that we were unaware of that she can shed light on.

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