Nuances of Tanzanian Society

Of Virtues and Tipping Points

When the Tanzanian embassy was bombed in 1998, editorial opinion was that Al Qaeda targeted it because they knew it would not have much of a defense. That incident and evaluation seem to be a metaphor for Tanzanian Culture.

Because of the communal, friendly, unwarlike   nature of the people, preparing for invasion was not a presenting   concern and therefore, rather easily slipped to a low position on US and local Embassy concerns. The oversight cost them dearly in life and limb.

Many aspects of Tanzanian cultural outlook and practices, positive as they sound, result in the same type of pricey unintended effect.

An agricultural specialist from Minnesota, here to consult with local farmers, will

Randy, Agriculturialist

Randy, Agriculturialist

attest to that. His analysis is that the persistence of old fashioned, non productive, planting techniques might be attributed to the societal ultra respect paid to elders who keep the power of decision making until death.

We suspect that perspective is at the root of lack of computerization at businesses that would clearly profit from their utilization. It triggers memories of the initial resistance to technology in our country in the nineteen sixties and seventies when out of office talk often centered on the superiority of the hand written ledger. I shop frequently at the nearest facsimile to a supermarket we have here and have an increasing temptation to confront the woman who complacently enters by pen documentation of sales.  “Do you not understand how you could increase your profit by tracking your inventory, sales, so that you can base your ordering on expedient, timely, insightful analysis?”, I want to implore, but I resist knowing the likely answer. “That is not the way it is done here.”

Contributing to the mind-set of stick with the old is the teacher dominated classroom which we older people in the US like to so fondly remember as we watch the younger generations progress through school. Witnessing the process here tends to lead to a different view. When students who are communal by nature are strongly encouraged in their developmental years to listen, not challenge, the result is emerging, for the most part, unassertive graduates, who are not critically thinking, who are uncomfortable with conflict with family and authority figures, who, rather than youthfully aspire to leadership, seem to be serenely complacent in wait mode for the next assignment to be presented to them by those in charge.

Maybe differing heritages combined in our country to spur change and produce stories like the dramatic clash of Tom Watson Sr, founder and Chairman of the Board of IBM and his son, Tom Jr, President. Rising up against his father’s judgment that it would be better to remain in the non technical office products business, Jr used the power of his office to risk all assets of the company, built by his father, for entrance into the newly emerging computer industry. A scenario and outcome like this one would be nothing short of shocking here due mainly to the extreme emotional stress which the young contender, by nature and nurture, would experience in taking on the parent.

The case can be  made that this population enjoys its set of values , based on human connection, and subconsciously has built a system which resists  the pursuit of material goods to protect itself from the all too often, and well known,  resulting evils.

The Western World’s observance of how this type of in Country thinking can limit the development of human potential and years of life span seems to spur   NGOs (Non Government Organizations, i.e.  Non Profits), Churches, and others to flock here, not for purposes of changing cultural outlook, but for honing it in order to create a positive effect on those issues.

Tanzania is most apparently plagued with disease and other preventable causes of death.

Aids, malaria, typhoid, dengue fever are rampant and often fatal. Malnutrition in children under five is also a leading cause of death.

In the case of the Aids epidemic there may be some underlying causes in societal practices. This is a country in which polygamy was practiced and promoted by a harsh, demanding, rural environment requiring a man to have more than one wife to establish household until 1961 when Independence was declared and Julius Nyerere, first President and highly revered Father of his Country, led a movement bringing families out from the Interior to form communities with supportive infra- structure. With this development and the spread of Christianity, many converted and accepted monogamy as Church law. Sometimes, however, unlicensed practice lags behind official policy and is somewhat understandable in a place where sons still have fathers modeling the old way, keeping multiple wives contracted in the previous period. Muslim men did not relinquish their freedom to marry multiple spouses and in their community the practice is still prevalent. Resulting anxiety amongst women is hardly surprising.   My empathy went out to a young lady who recently told me that when she broke out in a rash and fever, she remembered seeing her husband walking with one of the village women. While she had no real reason to suspect him, she queried him and hurried to the doctor. Who could term this reaction hyper-vigilant when so much is at stake?

In the rural areas, I am told by a number of locals, many believe Aids is the not a diagnosis but a curse by God on some family member of the victim resulting from an ill performed deed. Many with this outlook refuse diagnosis and treatment.

Our  friend and my ESL student, Dr Corrado, tells me that there is a tendency , in both urban and rural areas, to  turn to friends and relatives for advice on pregnancy  instead of seeking pre-natal care. The result is often having babies with Aids. He also tells us about the high fatality rate of children under five dying from

Dr. Corrado

Dr. Corrado

malnutrition and not from the conclusion of poverty to which many of us would likely jump. Rather, he and others, describe a frequent scenario of mothers unwittingly switching their toddlers from breast milk to the national dish, Ugali, which has no nutritional value but is easy to feed to resistant young eaters. Children in this circumstance arrive at the hospital, extremely listless, with extended stomachs, and no appetite.

He describes another disconcerting circumstance which he witnesses and is related to poverty: adult patients not receiving testing for malaria and other conditions because they cannot afford the cost which is often @ $1.20 US. Of course, he pays when he is there but worries about when he is not.

Dr Corrado is in Italy presently working with UNICEF to develop a program he will lead  to identify families with children with malnutrition and educate them on good eating practice. Randy, the agricultural specialist, will continue to work with educators here to convince farmers to make the necessary changes to increase healthy crop abundance allowing them to stay current with the World Market and decrease poverty, giving workers more income and an ability to pay for health care needs.

We at Global Outreach are providing education and computer equipment so that people, amongst other functions, can access through the Internet the world wide base of information in all fields but, maybe most importantly, the developments and standard practices in the area of healthcare. Knowledge, we believe, is power.

There are a myriad of  other NGO’s, Churches  and individuals ,like the ones I described in the “Interesting People”, here committed to the same goal of directly or indirectly saving lives.

I will close with another metaphor which seems to capture the essence of a Tanzanian dilemma, wide attendance at the numerous funerals. On a weekly basis employees are absent from work, meetings with Ministers and other businessmen and authorities cancelled, business closed, due to people leaving in that pursuit. One does not have to study demographics to see the negative impact on productivity.  If the number of deaths were diminished, funeral attendance thereby less, the resulting profit could be invested in health care and education with a very desirable consequence.

It is the construction of that cycle which is the object of the substantial, visible human investment of foreign resources present here, and somewhat ironically, I can’t help but conclude that the motivation to help is inspired by the warm, people oriented, values of a culture who will put all other concerns aside to attend the death of a community member to honor his/her memory and support the family.

A Short History of Tanzania and other Demographics:

In the late 19th Century, Imperial Germany occupied territories In Africa to create German East Africa. After the First World War, German East Africa was turned over to Great Britain as a Mandate to administrate the Country under internationally agreed rules and regulations of The League of Nations and subsequently The United Nations. The Country was renamed Tanganyika.

Lack of attention to human rights and provision of education by both Germany and GB spurred the growth in 1929 of a nationalistic organization, The African Association, formed by a group of Africans who were leaders and who had managed to obtain formal education. Their goal was Independence. In 1948, Julius Neyerere entered the fray and led the group to achieving their goal in 1961.In 1964 the neighboring country of Zanzibar and Tanganyika united becoming Tanzania.

Tanzania is made up of more than two hundred and sixty tribes, Hehe and Masai being two of the largest ones in our area of Iringa. The Hehe are remembered for the fine military they developed enabling them to resist German occupation for seven years. The Masaii are a pastoral people can be readily seen wearing their native garb, carrying spears and tending flocks.

Each has their own language, but all ascribe to Swahili as a national language. It seems in sync with their proclivity for community, that unlike neighboring Kenya, they chose it over English seemingly preferring national identity over commercial pragmatism. English is taught in the schools and is the language of secondary education so the government does promote its use knowing its value for World Market transactions.

There is no reported strife among the tribes. When asked about origin, people here respond with Tanzanian, with no mention of tribal roots. The exception may be that the people from Zanibar who are likely to define themselves as from that region; it may be that the Island is 99% Muslim population predisposes that identification distinguishing it from the mainland’s majority of Christians.

A friend asked recently if the Germans or English left a footprint on the culture, economic system or nature of the people. The answer is not apparently. The explanation may be that any extent that either group, while in authority, exerted to include the people in country administration was overall very limited.

Natural Resources include agriculture, wild life, and many minerals including gold, diamonds, tanzanite and others.

Population at latest count is set at about 49 million.

Tanzanians are communal and happy, love babies,  parties and play well with others.

Maria's going away party (1)

Maria's going away party (16) Maria's going away party (14)

and in interaction with visitors (here with teachers from St. Stephen’s Episcopal School)


Maria's going away party (5)

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