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DO’s and DON’Ts List of Tanzania

February 2020
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This list is short cultural guide that is meant to help foreigners in Tanzania. To avoid being in the wrong place and time, therefore this guidelines will help foreigners to adjust themselves. Some of the item listed here are taken from Quintin, Winks. Culture Smart: Tanzania. London: Kuperard. 2009.

Affection. Public displays of affection are disapproved of. Kissing, holding hands and hugging in the street are unacceptable.  Yet friendly affection between members of the same sex is considered perfectly fine, such as holding hands among the same sex. However, homosexuality is not only taboo in Tanzania but is also illegal.

Bargaining.  It is common to bargain in the markets and shops but not in supermarkets. Vendors usually raise up the price when they see foreigners coming. Therefore shopping with a local friend who knows the price and the language is a good idea.

Criticism. Criticizing people in public is considered not polite. In fact, criticism is considered offensive.

Dress. There is no such thing as a dress code in Tanzania. In the workplace, some women wear a skirt with strapless sandals and t-shirt. Other women wear a more formal outfit with shoes and jacket. In some offices, trousers are not allowed. For men, shiny polished shoes, long sleeves shirts, and tailored pants are common. In an academic environment like a university, it is common to see female students wearing party dresses or working outfits to class and male students dress like office workers. Jeans are rarely seen. Seeing men in a suit and vest are also common at church and as a daily outfit. This dressing style indicates that Tanzanians, despite their low income and poor condition, like to appear and dress well. For some areas where Muslims are dominant, women are supposed to wear decent clothes that cover the whole body. Tourists, showing their bare legs and shoulders, and chest are tolerated but not liked in public.

Eating.  From childhood, Tanzanian kids are taught to wash their hands before eating. Therefore, Tanzanians will not start eating until they have washed their hands.   If you invite a guest to dine at your place, it is better to prepare water for hand washing. Or, if you are invited to dine at the home of your local friends, they will offer you warm water for hand washing. The hand washing ritual is interesting. The hosts will pour the warm water saying karibu [“welcome”] while their other hand is holding a bowl for the dirty water. This ritual refers to the old days before spoons and knifes had been introduced. After eating, they will do the ritual again to clean their hands. As a traditional way, it is still practiced in rural area. The family eats together and share from the same large plate while they usually sit together on the floor surrounding the plate. Traditionally, men and women eat in separate place  even though they are family.

Foreigner. If you are Asian, people will probably call you Chinese. No offense. This is understandable since Tanzanians have hardly met or seen any Asian except those of Chinese descent. As for white people, they will call mzungu. Tanzanians are very warm and friendly so they will try to talk to you in whatever occasion to practice their English. Yet, be cautious for they may have different motives.

Friendship. While Tanzanians place great importance on friendship, it is second in line to family. Friends are for socializing; family is where Tanzanians turn in times of need. Attending local events [weddings, funerals, and religious activities] will help build your social confidence. Volunteering with money is important.

Greeting. There are some many phrases and words to greet people depending on the degree of the relationship, age and status. If you do not know Swahili, it is okay just to say “Hi” or “How are you”. The most important thing is to greet anyone whenever you pass by, either in the waiting room, stairs, or other passages, whether you know the person or not. Greeting is very important and if it is possible, asking about the wellbeing and families are very well appreciated. If you only greet your friends and ignore others who stay in the room, you are considered to be impolite. In certain tribe, greeting an older or more respectable people is followed by bowing or kneeling. Bowing or nodding head are not part of Tanzanian style so try to avoid this.

Guests. In the well off households, guests will be seated in the living room but the simple people will usually seat their guests outside the house. For simple people, guests should sit at the bench or chair but not on the ground while they sometimes, if no more chairs available, sit on the floor. Providing foods for guests is also part of honoring the guests although it sometimes takes time to prepare the food. If you do not want to eat, at least make a promise to eat another time. This is part of African hospitality. When you leave, the host will escort out or to the gate. Better not to reject this politeness.

Handshake.  Tanzanians do not really handshake. If they make a handshake it is just very brief and light, far from a firm handshake. Some youngsters like to make a handshake, then twist their thumb up and hold the palm. Or commonly, people will offer their wrist to be touched as a sign of greeting instead of a handshake.

Hospitality. Tanzanians are basically warm, friendly people who sometimes welcome strangers with acts of enormous kindness. Yet, beware of the second motive.  Undugu = Brotherhood/Sisterhood conveys the Tanzanian spirit and includes the notion of extended family, generosity, consideration and compassion toward others in the family and community. It refers to the safety net where the haves share with the have nots.  One person who is working might support a dozen friends and relatives who are not.

Kitchen. In the traditional household, the kitchen is located outside of the house where the charcoals and firewood are kept. This is reasonable so that smoke does not enter and spoil the house. Yet, the modern families have their kitchen inside the house. They use gas, kerosene, or an electric stove to cook.

Laughing. Tanzanians can laugh about things and events which are funny and surprising, even if it hurts people. They don’t laugh about the people concerned but about the strange and funny event.

Mzungu. = “A person who walks in circles” or “restless”, or “explorer”= name reserved for Westerners. Abandon any irritation with the tag early in your stay.

Time. The concept of time in Tanzanian is very different from Western countries. There are 12 hours during the day and 12 hours during the night. The day Swahili time is started when the sun rises, and the night time is started when the sun sets. Tanzanians have lots of free time. Therefore do not be surprised if they are one or two hours late for an appointment!  Better consider an hour ahead for the appointment instead of the exact time. For example, if the appointment is at 9 am, better to say 8 am to prevent the delay. It is best to confirm the time of appointments to avoid any confusion.

Touch. Tanzanians are touchy, feely people. They are likely to put a hand on your shoulder, touch your hand or look in the general direction of your face during conversations. Prolonged eye contact is unwelcome and regarded as an invasion of privacy and downright rude.

Travel. Traveling in Tanzania is an adventure in itself. Expect the unexpected and try to keep your sense of humor. Road travel is a sobering experience. Tanzanians drive on the left. Drinking and driving remains fairly common even though it is against the law. It is best to limit your travel at night as much as possible.







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