19 June 2014


Since I studied abroad in Italy seven (eek!) years ago, I’ve prided myself on my ability to “adapt” to different cultures. Sure, I’m American. And in some ways, yes, I’m proud. But in other ways, I’m definitely not. Upon coming here, I was looking forward to shedding the American baggage that I don’t love and taking on aspects of Tanzanian culture that I would.

I’ve been shocked to realize, though, just how American I really am. It’s not easy to shed that cultural baggage, not in the least.

Michael and I have run into our Americanness a lot since we moved to Mwanza. Here are three ways we’ve seen our cultural background butt heads with Tanzania:

1. Time

As is true throughout most of Africa, Tanzanians think about the concept of time very differently than we Americans do. For Tanzanians, time is not something to be controlled. And the future can in no way be predicted. So although you may make appointments with people, it is communally understood that we are not God and thus, things will never start on time.

This concept is even reflected in their language. In Kiswahili, you can say things like, “Nitakuwepo,” which essentially means, “I plan to be there.” But there is essentially no way to say, “I will be there,” because you’re talking about the future. So how do you know what will happen tomorrow?

Even though Michael and I know this about Tanzanians, even the intricacies of some aspects of their language, we still get annoyed when events don’t start on time. At the end of the day over dinner, we’ll complain about how long we waited for so-and-so to come to a work meeting and we’ll roll our eyes in agreement over the annoyance of it all.

Yet we know this is an American trait and we know Tanzanians are not Americans.

2. Possessions

In America, material possessions are owned. Even if we don’t use the word “mine,” this concept is implied. For example, we’ll say things like, “I have a car.” “She has a pen.” And so, the verb “to have” equates to ownership of a thing.

In Kiswahili, there is no verb “to have.” There is only the expression of being “with” something. When you say, “Nina kalamu,” you are literally saying, “I am with a pen.” This is hugely difficult for Americans to understand. Because when you work in an office and someone says, “Una kalamu? Are you with a pen?” and you say, “Yes,” you cannot be frustrated when they then take your pen. Right out from under your nose. Without a thank you.

To them, at this point, the pen is not owned. But to you, the American, you’re thinking, “What the heez?!? That dude just took my pen!”

3. Beating Around the Bush

For Americans, honesty is key. Good news or bad news, we want it straight. In Tanzania, this could not be further from what they want to hear. Because a Tanzanian values his or her relationship with you more than anything else in the world, they never want to give you bad news, out of fear that this will hurt your relationship.

What does this mean? For a Tanzanian, it’s more important to tell someone what they want to hear rather than the truth.

Say whaaaaaaat?!?

Yes. And on one hand, there is beauty in this, which we try desperately to appreciate! There’s no harshness in Tanzania. No hurt feelings. There is only your relationship with another person, which is valued above all else.

This is a bit harder when you’re talking about conversations you’ve had with your landlady. In one very important conversation, all we wanted to know was whether we had shared electricity or whether we had control of our own. Our landlady told us that we had control of our own, when we didn’t. Why? Because she anticipated that this was not the answer we would want to hear. (And she was darn right.) So she gave us the answer we wanted to hear and behind the scenes, worked on the situation in order to bring it into fruition. (Which it’s not. But that’s beside the point.)

our electricity meter - the bane of our existence.

“But she lied!” Americans say. “She needs to answer for that!”

In her mind, she did answer for it. She knew she was lying but her relationship with us was more important to her than the harsh (as she saw it) truth.

And that’s American baggage, my friends. But it’s not just American. Insert any culture that you’ve grown up in. You literally carry that with you, even when you try to understand and respect and appreciate a different culture. It’s a humbling moment.

Can we ever be more than our respective cultures? Can we step outside of the way we were raised to see our values in a completely different light? It’s easy when you’re living in your home country. But when you live in someone else’s home country, you see that your American visceral reactions to people and events and things happen, sometimes, whether you want them to or not.

When you start asking these sorts of questions about culture, it’s easy to see how countries can be at such odds with one another. You start to realize those conversations between world leaders, without the right cultural context and understanding, can be just white noise without any meaningful dialogue.

As much as I like to think of myself as this very “adaptable” American, able to become part-Italian or part-Tanzanian at a moment’s notice, it’s not possible. Maybe someday, that will be a reality, with more time spent in someone else’s culture. But for now, we’re just Americans and we have to live with the consequences.


  1. Hmmm, that seems like a very charitable way of interpreting your landlady's behavior. Are you sure that this comes down to an American vs. Tanzanian cultural difference? Salesmanship does have certain characteristics that transcend cultures...

    I confess though, I'm somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to using the cultural explanation for everything, as though every fact of human nature loses relevance at cultural boundaries, and there as many human natures as there are cultures, or maybe countries. You wouldn't say, for instance, that your strong opinions on equality between the sexes are merely an American way of looking at things, would you? I think rather you would say that gender equality is a universal principle that, if it isn't valued yet by a culture, needs to be introduced. And I would agree. But then, of course we know that some ways of looking at things, some things we value quite strongly, are relative to our own culture. It's just a matter of determining where that boundary is...

  2. Hi Michael, thanks for your comment. Your point about certain values transcending cultural boundaries is well taken and I agree with it. Of course, there are many issues we hope go beyond being an American or a Tanzanian or anything else: human rights, non-violence, full educational opportunities for girls and boys. There are many. Yet still, living abroad will teach you so much, more than you want to know, about how conditioned you are by your culture. That's what Michael and I are experiencing now, as we watch our "Americanness" astound and confuse the locals!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.