13 March 2014

tanzanian cultural norms we love.

Michael and I are officially starting to hit the point of missing things about our homeland. We've been in Tanzania for two months now and although we are still loving it, we find ourselves reminiscing about the food and some of the modern conveniences of home. (But let's be honest, we do mostly talk about food!)

oh, we miss you white mountain creamery.

Even still, despite some of these admittedly shallow difficulties, there are parts of Tanzanian culture that we have already come to love. We call ourselves lucky to live in a village setting for these first three months, where locals are welcoming beyond belief. This affords us the opportunity to see culture in a way that we may not have been able to, had we entered directly into life in a big city like Mwanza or Dar es Salaam.

We are sure there will be many more to come, but for now, we thought of five things about Tanzanian culture that we absolutely love and hope to integrate what we can into our own lives. Check it (before you wreck it)!

1. Respect for the Elderly

Tanzanians demonstrate amazing respect for their elders. And when I say elders, I mean literally anyone who is older than you. Culturally, elders are considered to be full of wisdom, because hey! They've been here longer! So younger Tanzanians are expected to treat them accordingly.

We've explained that greeting an elder is different than greeting others, which is already more than we can say coming from the United States. In addition, elders are welcomed into their children's homes (permanently) as they age. Tanzanians would not consider moving their elderly parents anywhere other than their own home. (Elderly care homes and the like don't exist in Tanzania.) Even if they did exist, I'm not sure Tanzanians would use them. Tanzanians believe strongly in living alongside others, which leads me into my second point.

2. Communal Living

Tanzanians are serious about living in community. Often, when Michael and I go on our evening walks, we will find groups of people talking with one another, sitting in the shade of trees or in someone's yard, while children run around or play games. Unlike in the United States, this is something that happens on a daily basis. After everyone gets home from work, before dinner is made, people join together to chat. In part because they see one another so often, they truly know one another and rely upon each other for anything, from missing ingredients in their next meal to taking care of one another's children.

I'm sure this doesn't always work beautifully. Neighbors fight, of course, and do not always have seamless relationships. But what a different picture than what we find, most of the time, in the United States! When Michael and I lived in Dallas, we were friendly with one married couple who also lived in the same hallway in our apartment building. Other than that, we sometimes offered an awkward "Hi!" to people who looked familiar. That was about it.

Since Tanzanians, by and large, know the majority of people in their community, a built-in safety network exists. Children roam freely, not fearing strangers or kidnappers, because everyone else is watching out for them, even if their parents aren't present.

This system has its downsides, especially for Americans like us. Once people have met you, there's very little privacy. We joke that in the United States, our walks outside used to be for us: a time to relax and catch up with one another. Now, not so much. Everyone you pass greets you and often, stops to chat. If someone recognizes you, you could be in conversation with them for the next 20 minutes, no sweat. All in all, a very different lifestyle than we find in the United States.

3. Always Friendly

Our experience (and language) is still quite limited, but from what we've been able to understand, most Tanzanians we've come into contact with are extremely friendly. They love talking, especially with foreigners, and getting our opinions on what we think of Tanzania, Kiswahili, and how many children we want. (Seriously. People ask us that all. the. time.)

Although the questions can be a bit much, we love the friendly nature of Tanzanians. We have yet to run into any narcissism. Often times in the United States, when we meet someone new, I feel we, as Americans, have a hard time not sizing the other person up. What kind of work do they do? Which college did they attend? This may just be me, but this is, sadly, what goes through my mind when I meet an American. Perhaps because we're foreigners and we have so little in common with Tanzanians, we don't obtain a full picture of how it works. But thus far, I am loving how genuinely friendly and curious Tanzanians are.

4. Affection  

Admittedly, this one is not an easy one for us to put into practice ourselves but in theory, I really enjoy the way Tanzanians show affection.

First, there are the children. Most of the children Michael and I have met are not afraid to show affection. They'll often just sidle up to us while we're walking and hold our hand as they begin to talk and ask us questions. It's not strange for me to look around to find Michael hand-in-hand with a young boy on either side. They regularly hug us, shake our hands, and sit on our laps without hesitation.

Second, there are adult Tanzanians' friends. Both men and women openly show affection to their friends, mostly of the same sex. As Michael mentioned before, handshakes are long affairs. (Remember before how we said we are still getting used to this cultural norm?) More than that, Tanzanian friends will walk down the street holding hands and conversations are filled with palm slaps, palm slaps that become handshakes, palm slaps that become handshakes that become a one-armed hug... I think you get the picture.

5. Boys Who Sing

This last cultural norm is more for fun but is something I still truly value. It's easy to see that all Tanzanians love to sing. Because most sing from a young age, they are quite good at it. Like they know how to harmonize. Without going to music classes for most of your life. What?!?

Once, when Michael and I were spending time with three young Tanzanian boys, who also happened to be brothers, we asked them if they knew any songs, not expecting them to start singing. Instead, they did just that! They grabbed fallen branches from nearby trees and used them to tap out a rhythm on the table, while the others danced and sang. And they were good. I'm not even being nice.

This extends even to high school boys. We've been able to attend a couple of Masses at the local seminary school, which is a private Catholic school for middle to high school aged teenagers. You'd think 300 teenage boys would only be interested in staring straight ahead of them while in church on a Sunday morning, but quite the opposite. My favorite part of Mass is their singing as they belt out their tunes and easily harmonize with one another.

It's more than just personal enjoyment. The fact that boys of all ages love to sing, and are proud to do so, signals a different kind of machismo here in Tanzania. To be sure, there are huge equality gaps between men and women, and in part due to local culture. Unlike in the United States, however, boys don't grow up thinking they are "too cool" to sing. Instead, it's looked at as a talent that should make you proud, not ashamed. And yes, we get to benefit through our listening as well! Now, if only we could understand what they are singing.

So there you have it! Five cultural norms in Tanzania that Michael and I are getting on board with. Except those five minute handshakes... Some things even we can't get used to!


  1. It sounds like you guys are having a really positive experience. I really enjoy reading your blogs. I love the art work!!! Love, Aunt Paua

  2. Thanks for reading, Aunt Paula! We love keeping in touch with everyone and sharing our story here. We'll keep the stick figures coming!


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