24 July 2014

can i have your number?

This is a true account of a conversation I recently had on the street.

Young Tanzanian Man (YTM): Hello, how are you?

Me: I’m fine.

YTM: Can I ask you a question?

Me: Okay.

YTM: I’ve seen you on this road a couple of times now.

Me: …

YTM: So maybe you should give me your number, so sometimes, we can talk and get to know each other.


Me: Um, no.

YTM: What?

Me: No. Have a good day!

I wish I could say that this was just a random occurrence, that this is the first time I’ve encountered a stranger here in Tanzania, usually a guy, asking for my number before they learn my name. But when it happens multiple times a day, it can’t be considered random anymore.

When we first moved to Tanzania, I had a lot of patience with these requests. I was trying to be culturally sensitive, so I would usually answer very politely and dance around what was being asked. I told myself that because I was new here, I should wait and see if I could understand more about this cultural nuance before I acted harshly.

Well, it’s been nearly seven months, and I’ve lost my patience.

I recently went out clothes shopping with an American female friend. As we’re both women, at this point, we’re used to the cat calls and questions from teenage boys and young men. But this is not limited to them. We were standing in the market, looking at some dresses, and a teenage girl stood within a foot of us and just watched us shop.


This is another normal experience for Westerners in Tanzania. Sometimes, I think it’s just curiosity. We’re a rare breed at a local clothes’ market so Tanzanians are shocked to see us there, on their turf. But this young lady was not just a lookie-loo.

After about five minutes of staring at us, she got up her courage and point-blank asked in Kiswahili, without any greeting whatsoever, “So, can I have your number?

I gave her a serious tongue lashing. “Stop it!” I said in Kiswahili. “Why do you like to annoy us? Go away!

It was not my finest moment.

I’ve pondered this phenomenon of Tanzanians asking for my number in order to try to understand it. From my perspective, there’s a lot of social prestige wrapped up in knowing and being friends with a Westerner for Tanzanians. Often, when Michael and I are speaking with Tanzanian teenagers and young adults, they make known the fact that they don’t want to marry a Tanzanian. They don’t even want to marry a foreigner. They want to marry a white “mzungu.”

This is scary, for a number of reasons. There are remnants of white superiority, in which Tanzanians feel like they’ve “made it” if they’re able to socially or romantically associate themselves with a Westerner. There’s also hints of consumerism making its way into Tanzania, as the younger generations believe that all Westerners have money, so thus, if they can befriend them, they too can get money. Lastly, it demonstrates the lack of awareness about the outside world. In many parts of the world, we've decided it's just not socially acceptable to target someone because of their skin color or country of origin. Tanzanians have no concept of this and probably have no idea that when they approach us for our phone numbers on the street, they're doing just that.

Whenever Michael and I hear that young Tanzanians want to marry people like us, we try to educate them about how difficult that truly is. “Our cultures are so different,” we tell them. “We don’t value the same things. This leads to a lot of problems in relationships.” But often times, it seems our words are falling on deaf ears.

No matter what the cultural reasons behind asking for my phone number on the street are, I’ve decided it’s not something I’m going to work to understand. Call me culturally insensitive, I think it’s awkward, rude, and offensive, mostly because I don’t hear them acting this way toward one another. I only hear this type of behavior when Tanzanians are speaking with Westerners.

I can’t avoid it, though, so I’m working on ways to respond to these requests without being offensive myself. Any ideas?

3 comments:

  1. I guess I can take that move out of my repertoire.

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  2. This worked for me once (and that's all it needs to work).

    Don't worry Ashley, I'm sure you'll get a mature comment.

    ReplyDelete
  3. OMG. I wrote a blog very similar to this about two weeks ago. It has yet to be published as I wanted to sit on it and edit a little before publishing... Guess what they said about us going through the same stuff is true! Once it is published, I will let you know if I get any helpful suggestions...

    ReplyDelete