Attitudes and Culture

Travellers from highly developed countries can experience a culture shock in Tanzania, especially when choosing to immerse themselves in the Tanzanian way of life. From what I have seen, people who spend their time in expensive hotels do not get to know the real Tanzania and real Tanzanian people. Unfortunately, colonialism, repressive capitalism and governmental corruption have led the Tanzanian people to adopt an attitude of dependency and fatalistic resignation that helps keep the country one of the poorest in the world. This means that many Tanzanians do not believe begging or asking for money is shameful, as is usually the case in Western countries. This can be uncomfortable for tourists who make a conscious effort to spend their money in local shops and markets or work for a charity as they already feel they are doing all that they can to help. When visiting remote schools during the book distribution, teachers and pupils would ask us if we could come back with computers, build wells and provide electricity.  We had to politely tell them that, for now, we could only bring text books and some toys for the children.

However, although poor, Tanzania is a united country, everybody adores the first Prime Minister Julius Nyerere (1961-1985); you will see a picture of him in all shops, hotels and schools. Tanzanians admire tourists but are also very proud of there country and their heritage. Tanzania is also united by the language Kiswahili which is taught to all primary school pupils as a second language, following their tribal language which is spoken within the local community. A great way of connecting with Tanzanian people is to learn a song (which everyone seems to know), I saw it on Youtube before I left:

Just replace the word ‘Kenya’ with ‘Tanzania’ and you have a great way of getting to know and impressing locals!

One particular aspect of the Tanzanian attitude which I found odd at first was laughing at things which seem inappropriate/embarrassing to us. Laughing is the typical reaction, especially for women, to all awkward or uncomfortable situations. You may therefore find that you complain about something at a hotel or restaurant and the staff will laugh at you, this is not because they think you are being ridiculous, it is simply a reaction which is normal to them, and you will nearly always find that Tanzanians will help you whenever they can. This also means that Tanzanians will always see the funny side, so if you happen to embarrass yourself in front of someone, do not expect to get away without a giggle!

In terms of greeting people, Tanzanians are very keen on hand shaking. Sometimes they will hold your hand for what feels like an uncomfortable period of time while they talk to you however, do not be offended as the longer they hold your hand, the more trusting they believe you are –it is therefore rude to pull your hand away. It is also polite to say hello or good morning to pretty much everybody and it is especially rude to not reply when someone greets you, even in passing. A safe answer to pretty much anything someone says in passing is ‘nzuri’ (good) or ‘safi’ (safe), which is not actually as ghetto in Tanzania as it may be here in the UK. When asking for something in Tanzania it is unusual to use the word ‘please’ (‘tafadhali’ in Swahili) as this is associated with begging. Instead, just say ‘Can I have…’ then ‘thank you’. (Popular words/phrases are on the Swahili page).

Dress, especially for women, is important in Tanzania. Whilst there are several religions in Tanzania, including Islam and Christianity, the majority of the population are conservative. Women should therefore make an effort to cover their shoulders and knees except for when at the beach. We did find however, that exposed knees are more disrespectful than exposed shoulders so vest tops can often be okay- this is true of Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar however, if you are in small towns it is a good idea to cover up at first before you understand what the locals are comfortable with. Men can wear shorts but should not walk around without shirts unless on the beach. It is also disrespectful for men and women to hold hands, embrace or kiss in public. Only people of the same sex can hold hands as this shows friendship, which can often seem ironic as most Tanzanians are openly homophobic.

Being European girls in Tanzania, we were often approached by local men in a friendly way and sometimes, this can feel too friendly. My suggestion would be that if a man is making you feel uncomfortable, tell him you are married. Tanzanians expect young women to be married and do not question why you may not be wearing a ring.

Essential Items

There are a few things I took with me to Tanzania which proved to be essential items, suprisingly hairstraighteners was not one of them. My most valuable posession in Tanzania was my torch -I cannot tell you how useful this was. Not only are Tanzanian roads not lit at night, but electricity supplies are also unreliable, or non-existent in extremely rural areas. May-September is the Tanzanian winter and the sun sets fairly early, approximately 7pm, you may therefore be going for dinner in the dark and would really benefit from having a torch to hand for walking home to finding a tuk-tuk. The torch was also the ideal weapon against certain insects (and one large unsuspecting crab) which often appeared in our accommodation. Another item which was used very often was my iPod. Now, I know some people say you do not need an MP3 player when travelling around Africa however, it is the travelling itself which will make you regret not taking one -yes, there are some fantastic sights to see but you will be thankful for music when you realise you have passed nothing but dead trees on a bus for 5 hours. In addition, Tanzanian drivers love a good sing-song on long drives; particular requests we received were Celine Dion (huge in Tanzania) and 50 Cent.

During the Tanzanian winter it is warm (and in some places, like Mtwara, hot) by our standards during the day however, the evenings are certainly chilly. A jumper/sweatshirt of some kind if therefore essential. I heard from some of the other READ groups in northern and far western areas of Tanzania that the weather was often slightly colder than they were expecting -trousers and t-shirt weather during the day. In addition, you will be wanting to cover your arms and legs once the sun goes down as this is when the mosquitoes come out to party -they will be out in even bigger groups near rivers and lakes. You should still however, wear mosquito spray/deet under your clothes as mosquitoes can bite through thin material such as leggings. Mosquitos can also bite through a mosquito net so be sure not to sleep with your face us against the net, that might hurt in the morning!

Night time in Tanzania can be scary. When in Dar es Salaam, we rarely went out when it was dark, if we could help it. As the sun was down by 7.20pm we would often go out for dinner when it was light and go back to our accommodation in the dark -unless this was a very short walk, we took a taxi. Dar es Salaam can rather frightening at night especially at first, and we had heard of several muggings of European travellers while we were there and did not fancy taking the risk. If you are only going a short distance from your accommodation you will probably feel comfortable, especially if you are walking along a lit street with cafes and shops. You will probably find that a few taxis are always waiting outside your accommodation, my advice would be to use one of these taxis and hold on to the drivers card or telephone number. Once you use him again, he will be your loyal friend. For 5 minute journeys in Dar es Salaam we paid 3,000 TSH. In Mtwara, we rarely ventured our of our safe and heavenly Lutheran Inn hostel once it was dark. Around once/twice a week we would go to Korosho lodge for a curry however, although Korosho was in the ‘town’ the streets were not lit at night and the only people around are men and bajaj drivers. We always took a torch when going out in the evening and told our hostel manager, Big Dave, where we were going. We also took bajajs in the evening to ensure we spent as little time as possible walking the streets (taxis were not necessary in our small town). Although we felt Mtwara was quite safe, it was not worth the risk of putting ourselves in danger.

Important (and probably obvious) items to take to Tanzania include mosquito spray-it is worth spending more for 100% deet, a mosquito net, travellers stomach tablets, a quick try towel, tissues for toilet trips in bushes, a money belt (however lame you think this may look), and a sleeping bag liner (they roll up very small and there are some hostel sheets you just do not want to snuggle up to).

~If you have any questions or would like further information on anything mentioned, please do not hesitate to email me at, I will be happy to help as I understand how daunting Tanzania can seem -The aim of my blog is to hopefully help a few people : ) ~


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