14 September 2015

(tanzanian) kids say the darndest things.

When you were a kid, what were some of the pretend things you did with your friends? Or if you have children, how do they play with others and entertain themselves?

The other day Ashley and I had the neighborhood kids over to play in our yard. We brought out the usual fun things for them: Matchbox cars, coloring materials and some candy.

But this time something caught our attention: when it comes to play time, the imaginations of Tanzanian children go in a remarkably different direction than, say, American children. How so?

American kids - assuming they are actually not playing with their smartphones, computers, video games or just watching TV - like to pretend they are superheroes, princesses, playing house, putting on a fashion show, etc.

But not so with Tanzanian kids. Here are the actual things the neighborhood children talked about while playing at our house the other day:

1. Attending a funeral

I noticed Mariam placing little sticks on top of her toy car and pushing it atop the reed mat we had placed for them.

Me: “Mariam, what are those sticks on the car?”
Mariam: “They are various family members. This is the father. Here is the mother. And these are the children.”
Me: “Oh, I see. And where are they going?”
Mariam: “They are going to a funeral. This one here (points to a stick half-buried in the dirt) was in a car accident and died. So the family is going to mourn this person’s death.”

The fact is death is such a common part of life in Tanzania. It seems that everyone is going to a funeral nearly every week. With such an event being commonplace, no wonder it’s the foremost topic of a child’s imagination.

2. Corporal punishment

I looked over and saw two of the children playing by themselves, having set the toy cars down. Suddenly, the one hit the other with a fallen tree branch.

Me: “Stop that! What are you doing?”
Stevu: “I am the teacher, and she (pointing to Vanessa) is the student, so I am beating her.”

Corporal punishment, despite what the law says, is still commonplace in Tanzanian schools. Evidently it is so common that children incorporate the practice into their own pretend role plays with friends. Perhaps it feels good to be the one holding the stick for once. But seriously though - how could you hit that sweet face above?

3. Politics

Stevu, who I have written about already, ran into our yard wearing a shirt we had not seen before (the children’s outfits are not that varied), featuring striped sky blue, bright red and white colors. He stood in front of us, put his hands on his hips, and proudly pushed his chest out yelling, “I am wearing the colors of Chadema!”

It’s a presidential election year in Tanzania, with national elections set for 25 October 2015. There are two main parties: CCM, who has been in power since independence in 1961, and Chadema, a sort of united coalition of opposition parties. This year promises to be the most hotly contested election yet, and it’s a constant topic of (heated) conversation among the locals. It seems that Stevu’s mother’s political preferences have been (proudly) embedded in her son.

4. Skin problems

Sickness is a constant part of life in Tanzania, not only for us, but also for the locals. Malaria is the common cold in this part of the world. But physical afflictions are not limited to those caused by mosquitoes. At some point, unprompted, the children just began to show and talk about skin problems.

Maende pointed to what appeared to be a burn mark on his skin, which, according to his sister, was the result of a bird flying into a pot of boiling water that Maende was crawling next to at that moment. Not sure about that story.

Vanessa pointed to little Vedastus’ (AKA Veda) face, shouting that he has acne. Upon telling her how unlikely that is given he’s not even two years old, Mariam chimed in by telling us that her mother has bad acne on her face. I’m sure her mother would be thrilled.

5. Exercise

Between the two countries, if any children need more exercise it’s the Americans. Many Tanzanian kids walk an unimaginable distance to school. The girls in particular are always working and carrying something heavy, such as buckets of water atop their head with a two-year old strapped to their back. (Mind you the girl doing the heavy lifting may only be seven years old herself). Suffice it to say we don’t see many (if any) overweight Tanzanian children. But that apparently doesn’t stop them from wanting to get fit.

At one point, two of the kids, Mariam and Vivi, stood alongside our truck and, while watching their reflection in the vehicle’s paint, proceeded to do a rather interesting exercise routine. This basically involved them erratically thrusting and pumping their arms in all manner of directions, and then walking over to one of our avocado trees and attempting a pull-up on one of the lower branches. Despite not being able to do even one, it did not seem to discourage them from continuing to pump iron, and by iron I mean air.

So there you have it. Just a few interesting observations from one afternoon of play with the neighborhood children in Mabatini. Do you have any funny or interesting stories about children playing? If so, feel free to share in the comments section below!


  1. Hello Michael, I really enjoy reading your posts. Just wanted to share that your neighbor children all look very well dressed with clean, intact clothes, shoes, etc. This contrasts with what I was used to in Rwanda in 88-90 while in the Peace Corps, or in Malawi 67-69 with my family. I love Tanzania, have visited there multiple times over the years, and got to visit Mwanza in 1987. So many tribes in Tanzania yet they have maintained peaceful relations. One other observation about children's imagination, wherever I have been in East Africa, in the past I have often seen the boys make small cars or trucks out of reeds or wire, with an extended "steering wheel column" that allowed them to "drive" while standing up! Hopefully they are still using their ingenuity like that out in the countryside. Asante sana! Kwahari, Linda

    1. Regarding the clothing, this also surprised us when we first arrived in Tanzania, but one thing we quickly came to learn is how important appearance is in this culture. Honestly most Tanzanians dress better than I do. For example, if you look at the children in this post we wrote http://leenhome.blogspot.com/2015/05/i-think-its-time-for-party.html they all look immaculately dressed. Well everyone of those kids lives in a home made of mud brick walls and a flat tin roof. You would never have expected that. Before we could take them out to play, their mothers made them shower and put on their Easter Sunday church clothes because they wanted them to look nice. Regarding the toys, yes, the Tanzanian children continue to make small cars or trucks out of cardboard boxes, reeds and wire. And they have a lot of fun playing with them!


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