06 March 2014

what are cultural stereotypes worth?

Since we were guests at a local home, I've been thinking a lot about cultural stereotypes. We all know where stereotypes come from and joke that stereotypes exist for a reason. But I've been trying to wrap my brain around something deeper, underneath the surface. What's the true value of a cultural stereotype?

Before Michael and I came to Tanzania, we read African Friends and Money Matters, a book written by a Westerner for outsiders attempting to understand Africans' viewpoints about money, relationships, and communal living. Michael and I read the book quickly, taken by its explanations of an environment completely different from our own backgrounds.

We thought we understood. (Never you mind that Africa has 54 countries and the rest of the world consistently refers to it as one place.)

A little over a month ago, we were invited to a Tanzanian family's home and were warned that we would be asked for money. "All Tanzanians ask wazungu for money," we were told. "They figure there's no hurt in trying." Their prediction surely matched the description we found in African Friends and Money Matters.

Before we left for lunch that day at their home, we got our heads on straight. We weren't going to give them money, as advised by fellow co-workers in Tanzania, in order to emphasize that we were not here to be a hand-out. We tried out a few phrases on each other in Kiswahili. "Hatuna pesa." "We don't have money." "Pole sana.""We're very sorry." "Siku nyingine…" "Another day…"

But they never asked.

Now, have other Tanzanians asked us for money? Absolutely. But within a couple short months, Michael and I have been able to ascertain that the stereotype doesn't hold out all of the time.

A second interesting stereotype about Tanzania, and most of Africa, is that everyone here wants to have a huge family. Many outsiders think, probably from what they've seen and read, that African women have many, many children and don't give much thought to their family's size. I will admit that's the information I received in the United States and assumed that's what I would see here.

Although the fertility rate here is high in comparison with the U.S.A., (as of 2013, it's hovering at just above 5 children/woman,) Michael and I have found Tanzanians, particularly our age and younger, are extremely cognizant of their family size. Our conversations with them have revealed that they recognize the many difficulties that exist with large families. One local told us he and his wife are hoping for three, maybe four children. Another told us we were "crazy" to suggest that he and his wife have more than three children. Now, that definitely didn't live up to the stereotype I had created in my head. (Heck, that sounded a lot like my own family!)

So what's the value of a cultural stereotype?

Like all things, I'm sure the answer lies somewhere in the middle. But when we enter any new culture, we have to remember that people - you, me, Americans, Tanzanians, students, women, or any large group of people - are capable of being different from one another, despite a shared bond.

Do all Tanzanians ask for money from us, the foreigners, as soon as possible? No.

Are all Americans obsessed with work and money? Um, we're not. So no.

Do all Africans want to have huge families? Definitely not.

We know when we step back from stereotypes, they can't be right 100% of the time. We know that people are bigger than their nationality, their cultural background, their gender.

But do we approach each other that way? Or do we confine each other to preconceived notions we've already built for them? 

I have to admit that, at times, I do. I allow others' assumptions to dictate my judgement before those I'm judging even get a chance to speak.

I'm reminded, through these experiences, to approach each person as just that: a person. Not a Tanzanian. Not an American. But a unique person with a story I want to hear.


  1. This was an awesome post! Thank you for all your wisdom!

  2. thank you karen! not sure about the wisdom part, but i try!


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