23 February 2015

the story of a friendship: me and tanzania.

Let's just come out and say it: I don't love Tanzanian culture.

When you move abroad as a new expat, you can't help but speculate about what life will be like in your new country of residence. I, for one, wanted to love Tanzanian culture. I wanted to actually want to become Tanzanian.

And lo and behold, I don't love it. Now what?

Michael and I have called Tanzania home for over a year now. The whirlwind has died down, our heads have settled on straight, and life is normal life.

And I've come to face the hard fact that I don't love the culture here.

I know my view of Tanzania will continue to evolve as I'm here. I hope as I gain new perspective on the culture, its people, and its language, I'll come to appreciate more and see both the beauty and the ugliness on ever deeper levels.

All in all, though, I'm pretty sure me and Tanzanian culture will remain just friends. Very nice, platonic friends. We're definitely not acquaintances, as we've had time to warm up and get used to each other. I really value a lot of what it has to offer and I hope that Tanzania feels the same way about me. But we're not planning to date. And marriage? Well, that's completely out of the question.

Admitting that Tanzania and I aren't in love is a very humbling moment. I dreamed that Tanzania would be my end all, be all. Before we left, people would tell me, "You'll probably never come back! Just watch, you'll love it so much there." And secretly, I thought, "Yeah, you're right! It's pretty much going to be the best thing ever. I'm going to speak the language and have all kinds of Tanzanian friends and probably become a Tanzanian."

And that's just not happening. But why?

I lived in Parma, Italy for six, short, beautiful months as a study abroad student during college. It was one of the best times of my life. I went into the experience with very few expectations. My only real goal was to learn the language as best as I could. I didn't put too much pressure on Italia otherwise.

Italian culture and I were a match made in heaven. I adored my host family, following my two fratellini, "little brothers", around like it was my job. (Mostly because their ability to speak the Italian language was about equivalent to mine.) I loved Italians' crazy conspiracy theories and blunt opinions about me and my Americanness. ("You must be German! You're too skinny to be an American!" Ouch.) I wanted to grow old in Italy and sit on benches in the piazza like all the other nonne and nonni, people watching and talking about the weather.

another cliche picture of italy. deal with it. 

So when Italy broke up with me, or rather my student visa expired, it felt like my fiancé had called off the wedding. I was heartbroken.

One could say comparing Italy and Tanzania is an apples and oranges experiment. Italy is Western, while Tanzania is not so naturally, my Americanness would align more with Italy. Italy is a developed country, while Tanzania is not so again, who wouldn't want to live with more amenities and conveniences? In addition, I was a short-term student in Italy. I didn't have to worry about my work and its meaning to my life, the rent payment, or how I would find the money to go home and visit my family ever again?! No. None of those thoughts crossed my mind while on the other hand, Tanzania causes these thoughts to run around rampant in my brain every day.

I had a conversation recently with my fellow Maryknoll Lay Missioners that shed some light on my Tanzanian experience thus far and may partly explain why me and Tanzania are not in love.

We were discussing the difficulties of living in Mwanza, the Tanzanian city in which almost all of us are living. Michael and I have talked about our location at length before. As the second biggest city in Tanzania after Dar es Salaam, it's a lot of noise and activity for a fresh-off-the-boat missioner to come to grips with. And that's when one of our long-term missioners, who has been in Tanzania for over twenty years said, "When we came, we had the opportunity to live in Tanzanian villages for at least our first few years. We had time to fall in love with Tanzanian culture."

Bingo. A lightbulb turned on inside me when she said that.

It's a statement I've heard repeated by other long-term expats of Tanzania. Many got their footing in the rural countryside of Tanzania and thus, got to sink their teeth into the roots of the culture. Rural life showcases the importance of communal living, the natural rhythms of the day, and the hierarchy of Tanzanian society.

In Mwanza, or any other developing city hit by globalization, the culture looks a bit out of whack. Most residents of Mwanza are not from Mwanza, having come to the big city in the hopes of finding employment. Unfortunately, they usually find themselves scraping by, sometimes comparatively worse off than they were in the village. I’ve been told this leads to the shaghala baghala that we see in Mwanza - the noise, the chaos, the quick outbursts of emotion, the yelling at foreigners. These traits are inherently un-Tanzanian, but to us as outsiders, it’s difficult to know what is truly a part of the culture and what has sprung up as a result of urban poverty, tribalism, and the effects of globalization.

the shaghala baghala monster, because he's just too good.

I think you can draw a slight comparison with those who visit the United States. You, as the American, become excited when someone from the outside has visited the United States. “What did you think?” you ask expectantly. “Ugh, people were so unfriendly and rude and everything was dirty,” they respond. “Well, where did you go?” “New York City.”

Well, of course!

Your immediate reaction would (or should) be, “But New York City’s not the US!” Literally, yes, New York City is a part of the United States, but culturally, it’s really not, right? For someone to get a good taste of true American culture, you’d want them to visit somewhere like, oh, I don’t know, the beautiful Twin Cities of Minnesota. But really, you get what I’m saying. When you visit NYC, you get a very specific picture of American culture, one that likely doesn't showcase the roots of who most of us are. 

That’s a lot like Mwanza. We came here thinking Mwanza is Tanzanian culture, but it’s not. It’s a mishmash of a lot of different parts of Tanzanian culture sprinkled with a lot of other outside, influential factors.
What does it all mean? 

I don't love Tanzanian culture. That's okay. Being an expat doesn't mean I need to love the country I now call home. Tanzania and I have a healthy friendship and we're not going to force anything else onto the relationship. 

Mwanza is not all of Tanzania. It's good to get out and get perspective when we can, especially in rural areas and villages where we can see Tanzanian culture at its finest. It's also equally important to be kind to Mwanza. Like a teenager going through those awkward years, the culture in Mwanza is still figuring out what it wants to be. And we get to be a part of watching it happen. 

a rare, quiet moment in mwanza.

Maybe most importantly, now that I'm beginning to flesh this all out, I feel a sense of peace about my new home. I'm taking the pressure off, allowing Mwanza to be what it is, in all of its madness and motorcycles and noise while also allowing myself to be who I am. I'm not a Tanzanian. I'm not African. But I am here and I'm willing to stay. 


  1. Dear Ashley,

    My name is Joe Pinzone and I'm casting an international travel show about expats moving abroad. We'd love to film in Tanzania and wanted to know if you could help us find expats who have moved there within the last 1-2 years or have been there for 3-4 years, but recently moved into a new home. The show documents their move to a new country and will place the country in fabulous light. I wanted to know if you could help spread the word to expats living there or are close to moving. If you'd like more information, please give me a call at 212-231-7716 or skype me at joefromnyc. You can also email me at joepinzone@leopardusa.com. Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Joe Pinzone
    Casting Producer
    P: 212-231-7716
    Skype: Joefromnyc

  2. Ashley, this is another great post. I've not fallen in love with Tanzania either. In fact, we leave in 3 weeks after 16 months here and I feel like I don't really have any strong feelings towards the country. Reading this has made me realise why. Thank you for putting it so succinctly.

    1. Amy, thank you for your sweet comment. It's nice to know other expats feel the same way we do. We will miss you, even though we've never met! :) Best of luck in the UK.