17 March 2014

let's talk tanzanian culture - hosting guests.

In case you missed it, you can check out part one here.

Otherwise, read on below for part two of Let's Talk Tanzanian Culture.

Ashley and I recently had a fascinating conversation with two of our teachers here at the Makoko Language School. Our discussion centered around guest hospitality - you know, welcoming people into your home. It was a classic example of two cultures having similar intentions for a particular situation, yet approaching it in a completely opposite manner.

Interested? Cool, then let's talk Tanzanian culture.


Disclaimer: The below commentary is based on a detailed conversation with two Tanzanians and some limited personal experience of my own as a guest in the home of a Tanzanian family. Given such, it is quite possible that reality may vary between tribes or circumstances.

Okay enough disclaimer stuff. Let's dive in.

Here is the situation...
A guest (or guests) comes over to your home. How does this play out?

In America...there is a very good chance that the guest is a friend or family member, and that either you invited them over or they asked ahead of time to visit. In other words, it was planned.

In Tanzania...few things are planned. The guest may just as well be a visiting stranger or random neighbor as it could be a dear friend or family member. That is because in Tanzania, life revolves around the spontaneity of people, and hosting guests - planned or otherwise - is one of life's most sought-after pursuits.

In both cultures...the aim is largely the same: make the experience as comfortable and enjoyable as possible for the guest. However, the way of going about this is rather different. Let's continue.


In America...the guest may call or text when they arrive at your home to say that they are outside, otherwise they will ring your doorbell. If none of the above, they will resort to good ol' fashioned knocking on your door.

In Tanzania...the guest will walk up to your home. Chances are you are already outside with your family: the children are playing in the dirt yard, the father is relaxing in a chair or on a rock, and the mother is bent-over an outdoor make-shift kitchen preparing a meal. If the hosting family is not already outside, the front door is most likely completely ajar. The guest will knock and say "hodi" and proceed inside upon hearing "karibu" from their host.


In America...it is most probable that your guest brought something to offer: wine, beer, soda, appetizer, side dish, dessert, etc. You thank them for what they brought, and then proceed to offer them a beverage pretty much right away. "Would you like something to drink? We have three kinds of beer, four types of wine, a variety of sodas, juice and water - bottled or tap. Or I can make you a mixed drink."

In Tanzania...your guest perhaps brought some flour or salt - staple items that you can always use - nothing intended for use on this visiting occasion though. As the host, you quickly offer them a seat. "Karibu kiti." If you have the means, you will also offer them a beverage. "We have Coca-Cola, Sprite or Fanta."


Let's pause here.

It is quite possible that an American may read the previous two passages and not think much of them, but the Tanzanian would notice important and glaring differences.
  1. In America, the event was completely planned out. The host planned for the guest's arrival by preparing food, fixing beverages, readying the house, and possibly even turning on some music. The guest planned by bringing a food or beverage item. In Tanzania, the event may have been planned, but it just as well could have been spur of the moment. Come as you are.
  2. The American host offered their guest a wide array of beverage options with the intent of making their guest happy. In other words, more options for my guest = happier guest. The Tanzanian would be shocked and bothered if you, as the host, offered them such a plethora of beverage options. "Which drink do they want me to choose? Are they playing some kind of game with me?" are some of the thoughts that may pass through the Tanzanian's mind. Thus, the Tanzanian limits their offering because this is viewed as easier on the guest. In other words, less for my guest to think about = happier guest.
Let's continue.

In America...the host will, after some time of chitchatting and munching on appetizers, ask the guest if they are hungry and would like to sit down for the main meal. Thus, the meal time revolves around when the guest states that they are hungry and ready to eat.

In Tanzania...the host will bring out food for the guest, perhaps right away, or perhaps after 30 minutes or so of conversation. The Tanzanian host is not interested in if their guest is hungry - the mere presence of a guest of any kind mandates that they bring you food, regardless of the occasion or time of day.


In America...the time together runs its natural course. Eventually, both parties give the signs of "let's wrap this thing up" and the guest departs after perhaps a hug and taking home some leftovers with them.

In Tanzania...the time together also runs its natural course, but the host will wait for the guest to verbally express their readiness to leave. Then, the Tanzanian will walk the guest 50+ meters away from their home before saying goodbye. (Note: Unlike Americans, there is nearly zero percent chance the guest arrived by car.) Saying goodbye in Tanzania almost always is accompanied by "Karibu tena" which essentially means you are welcome back to their home again.


Let's pause again.
  1. For the American host, the presence of food depends upon if the gathering was a pre-planned meal. If so, the time of the meal is centered on the hunger of the guest. For the Tanzanian host, the presence of food is mandatory. If you have a guest, you feed the guest. Asking a Tanzania guest "Are you hungry?" or "Do you want to eat here?" is just offensive.
  2. At the end of the meal, the American host will survey the leftovers and ask the guest if they would like to take some of it home with them. They then say goodbye at the door of the home. In Tanzania, leftovers are not given to the guest. Rather, the host escorts their guest with conversation quite a distance from their home on foot before taking leave of them.
So there you have it. A rather simple and common experience encountered by two different cultures each having similar objectives, yet approaching the same situation from rather different perspectives.

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