Tanzanian Culture

Iringa Town Center (1) IRINGA (113) IRINGA (109) Iringa Town Center (8)Tanzanians, like the rest of us, seemed to be defined by their genetic disposition and their resulting inherent cultural practices.

All of our experience indicates that The Tanzanian Culture is a warm,   people- oriented one. Walking  down any  street we are greeted with Jambos ,Keribus,  (welcome) or hello(an accommodation to our language) by the majority of passersby. Even babies, of whom there appear to be droves, traditionally bundled on their mothers’ backs, often struggle to clear their maternal shoulders to make eye contact and extend a smile. Toddlers tripping along at their mothers knee and school children, dressed in uniform, travelling in packs, do likewise. Their greetings are not just reserved for Wagusi like us; we notice that they greet everybody, whether they know them or not,  in their paths. Acquaintances, both men and women, often stop to embrace or shake hands.  School aged girls wave as they walk hand in hand.

A friend of ours, who has come here for many years to work with at risk youth, likes to say to his Tanzanian friends,”Do not let the world tell you that you are poor;   you are not poor, you have community. “It is not hard to see his point. It is obvious Tanzanians are visibly quite gregarious and very connected; they work together;  they play together; they celebrate together and they grieve together.

It is interesting to witness communal aspect of their marketplace. Adjacent to the tarp cover area that houses a massive number of fruit, vegetable, and fish vendors are streets lined with hundreds of small, single proprietor shops. They fall into about a dozen categories: grocery, tailoring, electronics, hardware, barber- beauty, clothing, stationary goods, telephone vouchers, banks and a few others. All offer approximately the same inventory, at the same pricing. It is clear that these stores, which are the basis of the Iringa economy, do not have owners who think like the US magnate of Retail, Steve Walton.  Au contraire, there seems to be no effort join together to undercut the competition or even an indication that the neighboring establishments are considered in terms of competition. Rarely if ever, for instance, have we witnessed a display of displeasure when a shopper leaves one place to buy at another.

Iringa Town Center (36) Iringa Town Center (18) Iringa Town Center (17) Iringa Town Center (14)
“Hairy” Potter Barber Shop

"Hairy" Potter Barber Shop

Store inventory is remarkably limited compared to goods available in The US. We have stopped talking about what is not available to the more efficient listing of what is available. It seems that the merchants are content

Iringa Town Center (20)

Iringa Town Center (21)

Iringa Town Center (30)

The Major Supermarket

to do business as usual rather than incented to discover new opportunities of import or manufacture to entice greater consumer spending. If a new product does appear, all sellers are likely to stock it. Some Tanzanians I have spoken to attribute this lack of entrepreneurial ingenuity to a desire to spare any activity which might imperil the financial stability of the family; others see it as a manifestation of group think and an innate urge to stay in sync. Wherever it comes from, it translates into a low key shopping experience with polite interchange with owner and often a fun interaction with younger family members who seem ever present.

  Tanzanians also express in  dress their social consciousness. The women wear colorful Katanga, tailored in different styles, frequently complemented by matching head pieces. The men are neat in their Western garb.  The children reflect their parents’ style wearing cute Western style outfits during the week and usually looking very special on Sundays at church. In the latter environment, it is hard to keep eyes off them. The girls wear special laces, and the boys are in small suits .The majority of children    draw attention by smiling, playing peek a boo, reaching out to touch and in general doing everything possible to endanger a poor penitent like myself to lose my soul in adoration of these local idols. They are, I think, by anyone’s standards, one cute bunch. In fact, the only time, it seems they do not smile is when I take their pictures. It seems an interesting, cultural practice that Tanzanians who always seem to be smiling, do not show teeth (make no mistake; their teeth tend to be beautiful) for the camera, and it is further interesting to see how young that habit starts.

If we witness communal activity in the marketplace and dressing habits, the church congregations and rituals like weddings and funerals are the blatant definition of it. Religious services are packed on Sundays; the men sit on one side with their comrades; the women on the other with the children. People greet each other cheerfully at the beginning of the Service.  At the mass we frequently attend, there is a woman with apparent mental health issues, who accompanies the choral group by standing in the aisle, blowing a whistle and using hand signals to direct the choir. She appears quite happy in her role, and we are impressed at the apparent tolerant acceptance of her presence with no attempts to remove her. After mass, the parking lot remains full with people visiting with each other and children playing.


IRINGA (104)Blog Church AttendeesOne well dressed Church goerBlog babyBlog Church AttendeeIMG_2090

Weddings and funerals are widely attended and considered real focal points of life here. Two funerals have engaged our attention of late. One, here in Iringa, held our emotions as well. Our friend, Miraji’s  young sister of 31 yrs died shortly before we arrived. Her name was Happy, which those who knew her are quick to point out was a very appropriate appellation. Miraji and his family asked us to dinner one afternoon to meet dine and watch the video of Happy’s internment. The format of the funeral was the customary one. People gather for a meal, the choral group sings lending an almost anesthetizing cadence in the background for this segment as well as all other parts of the Service. We watched as throngs of people came through the cafeteria style dining line. After a good hour of this activity, I asked our host about just how many guests were in attendance; he reported quite credibly that the count was over a thousand.  The recording followed a number of them through the reception line, onto the cemetery, through the viewing of the corpse, the blessings and homilies and the final internment. The ritual was obviously meaningful, beautiful and consoling to the participants, especially to Miraji’s mother who visibly was reaping additional solace viewing this filmed reenactment. We, too, could feel the healing power exuding from the response and the warmth of the community.

Vinginotti (6)

Marji’s Mother

Vinginotti (2)

The other funeral was for The Minister of Finance, age 63. Ten thousand mourners, including The President and Prime Minister and all Cabinet Members came through Iringa to attend the internment in the proximate village of his growing up. One notable detail that caught our attention was the non politic decision of the RC Bishop from our church, who was scheduled to preside over this high profile event, at the last  minute, to defer so that he could  officiate at a mass for his resident parish priest who had died suddenly.

While I have not attended a wedding, Stan and others attest to the number and genuine emotional expression of the guests to be remarkable and the music as always, mesmerizing.

Living here, I am often reminded of the emails in our country touting the virtues of the nineteen –fifties; practices and attitudes can seem reminiscent of policies prevalent during that period.

The elderly are clearly revered and deferred to.  In fact, while one’s parent is still alive, no major decision can be made without his/her or their consent.

Fathers are the revered head of the home. Children are obedient and never sass. Teachers reign in the classroom.  We have also learned and can see that the children belong to The Village and accept admonishment from any nearby adult in terms of commands  like “ stop fighting,” “ get to school”, “ look both ways before crossing”   and extend to conducting  oneself properly in all areas of deportment. Adults take the responsibility seriously: Motorists will stop, and Merchants will emerge from business when they deem it necessary to effectively issue these warnings.

Women are required to wear skirts and covered arms in the workplace.

Tanzanians still drop in to say hello, a custom, once prevalent, but now less practiced in the US. We have a number of Tanzanian friends so we experience and tend to enjoy this kind of impromptu visitation.

Politeness is a most valued ethos.

The friend, whom I quoted above, has another epithet that he shares with his local friends here. “Poverty”, he says, “is a state of mind.” Again, it is not hard to agree when you witness a populace getting along on little exuding such happy dispositions. However, I would add a caveat. Poverty is also a state of health. There are health issues here which are taking a serious toll and are causing senseless tragedies with far reaching effects like leaving children without parents. My student of English and good friend, Dr Corrado,MD  and others make us aware of the issues which I will share with you in the next post. A number of NGOs, Global Outreach included, are here to help in their own specific way to improve systems to address this critical area and do so in a way that is least disruptive to the identity and charismatic culture of the people they are attempting to serve.




Some of you have asked for an update on Winnie’s situation. Last week Winnie’s request was rejected. Reason given was that the letter of permission was missing from her file. Winnie was incensed because she knew that she had submitted it. To make a long story short, she received permission to leave her post, take the 8 hr bus trip here, pick up Rahma and go to Dodomo. There she held her ground until admitted to the Director of Education. The Director was quite taken with Rahma, held her through the interview and has promised to help Win. Winn got back on the bus at 2PM ; the bus became  stuck in the mud delaying arrival home until 7AM . Tonight she had a call that her house at her teaching assignment had been broken into an robbed. We are agreed that this has not been her quarter but are optimistic that she made great inroads toward getting her transfer. Will keep you posted.

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1 Response to Tanzanian Culture

  1. robock193 says:

    Wow! What a world away from what we here take for granted. I loved your insights and observations. I look forward to your next installment of bringing Tanzania to the forefront..an awareness that is missing from our own cultures here in the states.


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