By Solomon Herring
It seems to be rather obvious that Tanzania, and other African countries, have cultures that are significantly different from those in the west. In many ways, Africa is its own world, with different customs and societal expectations that seem quite foreign to those who weren’t born here. It is for this reason that many westerners who come to not only Tanzania, but pretty much any other country on the African continent, experience extreme culture shock that makes them feel out of place. Personally, I don’t see culture shock as a bad thing, as it shows that our own personal viewpoints on what is right or wrong, and what is to be expected, is completely relative. Culture shock is something that anyone who wishes to gain a broad perspective on what it truly means to be human must experience.
Today is my fourth day here in Tanzania, and all I can say is that the culture is vastly different from the United States. Adjusting to such a vastly different culture, and the lack of developed infrastructure in comparison to the western world, are two facets of African travel that have proven to be extremely challenging. Needless to say, visiting Africa is not a backpacking trip through Europe or a road trip across the United States. Going to this beautiful continent is a path that is rather unorthodox, however, those who are brave enough to take the leap of faith will experience the trip of a lifetime.
The first culture shock that anyone from the west will certainly face is the fact that when you are in Tanzania, you are going to be on African time. This means that you cannot expect things to be punctual, and you are inevitably going to spend a great deal of time waiting for things. For some people, this can be extremely frustrating, especially if they are coming from a country like Germany, where timeliness and order are emphasized.
A second culture shock for westerners, especially for those in western European countries, is the religiosity of the people. In today’s world, religion is declining in the west, as more and more westerners use science and philosophy to answer many of life’s greatest questions, instead of religion. This isn’t the case in Africa, as you’ll find that religious devotion is a cultural norm in most countries. In Tanzania, there is an even split between Christianity and Islam, and a very small proportion of the population considers themself iriligious. Furthermore, those who identify as adherent to a certain religion, are far more observant of their respective faith than those in the west. This can be represented by the fact that Tanzanians hold much more conservative societal values, particurlarly regarding homosexuality and abortion.
Despite the significance of the previous culture shocks, there is one more that most westerners will find to be the most overwhelming: the amount of attention they receive. Needless to say, if you are white, you are inevitably going to stand out while
walking down the street in Tanzania. This means that you are going to attract a great deal of attention and it is almost a guarantee that at least a few people will try to strike up a conversation. You also will hear the word, Mzungu, which is a non derogatory term for a white tourist. While walking down the street in Tanzania, or any other African country, it’s important to not let all this attention get to your head. Receiving all of this attention is definitely overwhelming, and in a majority of situations, ignoring the people approaching you is the best course of action. However, it is important to note that there are certain situations where taking time to converse with locals approaching you is a great way to meet amazing people. It is for this reason that it is important to read the situation you are in, so you can differentiate those who are being nice because they want to sell you something, and those who are genuinely trying to strike a conversation.
One of the most difficult situations you will encounter while going out in Tanzania is encountering panhandlers. It is not an uncommon occurrence for groups of children to approach western tourists on the street, and follow them while begging for money. This is something that happens to me almost every time I am out and about while in Arusha. It is definitely an annoying occurrence, however if you just ignore them, they will often go away. It is very important that when you are turning people down on the street that you do so politely. It is definitely stressful having people follow you and ask you a million questions, when you are simply trying to get from point a to point b, however it is important to stay calm.
While traveling throughout Tanzania, or any other country in Africa, it is important that you embrace the cultural differences,and do not attempt to avoid discomfort. To put it bluntly, Tanzania is a chaotic country. The streets are loud and crowded, and people drive like madmen. Public transportation is often crowded, and you will almost always find yourself crammed between multiple people sitting next to you, especially if you are getting around on a dala dala. The chaotic nature of Africa is a major turn off to some people, however, if you simply embrace it with a positive attitude, you will be able to live life in a different way than you normally would, and will even be able to get away with things that you couldn’t do if you were back home.