DISCLAIMER: Specifics are for science, stereotypes (and generalizations) are for survival. What I write below is an inherently stereotyped recounting of my thoughts and opinions regarding my recent trip to Tanzania. Having stayed only a short time in the country, I was unable to compile a complete anthropological or sociological report of all specific ethnic groups and cultural idiosyncracies present in the country. However, this will not stop me from painting my own mental image of Tanzania in what some may consider broad brush strokes, nor will it stop me from making comparisons to my own experience in Kenya. If you don’t like modern art, with its dense lines, bold colors and simplified style, please do not continue reading this. Is that enough warning Tameisha? 😉
Recently I was lucky enough to find myself in another part of East Africa. I have traveled quite a bit around Kenya, but the last time I left the country, I found myself in Europe, which is hardly another part of Africa. In fact, I was not sure I would even have time to go to any other country in my more immediate vicinity, given my teaching schedule, but I was lucky enough to fall into this trip only about a month before departure, which in my experience of traveling, is quite a short prep time for an “international” trip.
Going in, I only really had two “survival stereotypes” of Tanzania and Tanzanians. The first: they spoke excellent Kiswahili. The second: it’s considerably less developed than Kenya. Armed with these two generalizations, and prepared to confirm or condemn them upon engaging with correlative or contrastive experiences, I ventured across the Lunga Lunga border, and into the unknown. What I found there was quite pleasing.
If Kenya is to America, Tanzania is to Canada, which makes perfect logical sense if you take into account the mirror-flip that must occur south of the equator. Crossing the border, the road immediately disappeared, and the ride became considerably bumpier, but along the entire route to Tanga (the first big town) were Chinese and Tanzania work crews leveling the dirt in preparation for tarmac. Similar scenes are to be had all around Kenya as well, it was just that as a first impression, the change from tarmac to dirt road occurred at the border and was thus distinct.
Thankfully Tanzanian personalities are not as bumpy as the roads they drive upon. In fact, Tanzanians seem a very polite people to me. I was only called a mzungu once, in what I consider a disrespectul fashion. My response in quick Kiswahili actually illicited an apology. When I greeted people in Kiswahili, I was often referred to as an Mswahili, which just means a “swahili person.” Also, on my last day, as I was having trouble with the buses, several people, including a police officer!, actually offered to help me, in a non-obnoxious and actually helpful manner.
The most shocking part of the politeness is how it actually extends into language as well. We all know that, “actions speak louder than words,” but in this day and age, words are fairly powerful as well, and in Tanzania, the P’s and Q’s are in all the right places. Instead of using Kiswahili for, “Bring me this,” you actually phrase a request with, “I beg of you to…” or “I pray that you’d…” Also, people said please. A lot. And thank you. A lot. And when they welcomed you, it was not in the obnoxious fashion found in Mtongwe, perfectly exlempified the day I got home, walking through the village with a friend, only to be greated by a common loiterer with a very loud, sarcastic, “Karibu Kenya mzungu!” Mind you, this individual has seen these same mzunugu every day for months.
Speaking about language, it turns out the Kiswahili is excellent in Tanzania, and the spoken Kiswahili very closely resembles the written Kiswahili, which I consider a true sign of a literate culture. It was so nice being immersed in Kiswahili completely, having to read signs in it, interpret information manuals in it, and be required to express my own thoughts in it. And I got a nice suprise. It turns out I can speak pretty good Kiswahili! Tanzanians understood my language just fine, and even complimented me on it!
Finally, Tanzania is clean, and organized. Even the smallest roadside towns have bus stops that are actually off the main road, allowing cars to move more freely along the road. Bigger towns have sidewalks along the entire roadlength, and not just randomly interspersed in a haphazard fashion. The large towns also have coverings over their drainage/sewer ditches, and the public spaces are well manicured, and free of drunks and loiterers during the day. There were also parking spaces. PARKING SPACES!
Reluctantly the second stereotype of Tanzania also did hold up. There is certainly less visible industry, at least from the main roadways, and the larger towns don’t have as much branding and product placement that is evidence of a consumer-oriented culture. The tourism industry does seem to have decent infrastruture, and the, “nicest mzungu places,” in Tanzania are equals or surpass their respective establishments in Kenya, but there has not been as much evident trickle down effect.
This has some benefit. There seems to be a real opportunity for Tanzania to develop a lot of its heavy industry and urban centers along modern, post-colonial, guidelines, whereas Kenya developed some infrastructure under the colonials. A perfect example of this is Dar es Salaam. Though not the capital, it is the largest, most developed city, and it seems to have the benefits of both Nairobi (infrastructure and business opportunity) and Mombasa (location and laid-back culture). With proper guidance, it could become a world-class city of the likes of Miami or Sydney, combining a motivated working group with a laid-back atmosphere and culture.
My trip to Tanzania was a breath of fresh air. I have learned to live with what I consider some of the less-than-appealing aspects of Kenyan culture but escaping them is always a mental reprieve. Oftentimes I attribute a lot of a culture’s development to its environment, and so traveling to Tanzania, which has a very similar climate to Kenya, allowed me to better distill which non-environmental factors have more specifically impacted Kenyan development versus Tanzanian development. I am glad I got to see another part of East Africa, and was very pleased with how the Tanzanians I met engaged with their visitors and how they show respect towards their own country and each other.