Adjusting to Tanzanian Culture

September 28, 2012
Travel in Tanzania

The first time I stumbled into my homestay in the northern city of Arusha, Tanzania I felt like I’d stepped into a 1970s American living room – and I heaved a (guilty) sigh of relief. No mud hut in sight here. The owner of the house, a woman in her fifties whom we call “Mama,” is a reserved and intelligent widow whose late husband must have been successful on their farm because this home is the size of a suburban house back in the U.S., not at all what I expected from a crowded city in sub-Saharan Africa.

I live here with nine other female volunteers from Scotland, Canada, Sweden, Australia, and the U.S. We range in age from 18 to 75 and hit almost every decade on the way up. We sleep in twin-size bunk beds under mosquito nets; pour buckets of water down the seatless toilet to flush it; do the hokey-pokey in the cold, spitting shower; and brush our teeth with bottled water. We have two front gates, a high fence with spikes at the top, and a night guard named Jesus, which my parents are thrilled about. Besides the lack of bathroom amenities the house looks almost entirely Western, with a comfortable sitting room, a television (a rare find in Tanzania), and a formal dining room. 

Since it’s not safe to leave the house much after dark, my roommates and I often find ourselves parked in front of the TV on Friday and Saturday nights, watching pirated episodes of The O.C. that an old volunteer bought off the street here. I never watched that show at home because I thought it looked dumb, and it is. But now it’s a welcome reminder of my comfortable home country and I’ve grudgingly accepted its ostentatious presence in my African life, even though I’m frequently forced to apologize to my international roommates for this abysmal presentation of American entertainment.

I moved into Mama’s house almost a month ago. I’ll live here for three months total while I work Mondays-Fridays in a local institution called Golgotha Orphans Nursery and Primary School. I booked this trip on a near-whim and two months later found myself traveling thirty-five hours from home to live in a third-world country. On the plane, somewhere over Baghdad, I started to panic. I don’t even like camping. I’d never visited a third-world country in my life, and here I was about to go live in one. What the hell had I gotten myself into?

Fortunately – or unfortunately – people go to great effort here to ensure the volunteers are comfortable. We have a maid and a cook at Mama’s house who work seven days a week, from morning to night. It’s a culture thing; according to The World Bank Group, about 36% of Tanzanians were living in poverty in 2007. Those who do not – even if just barely – employ servants in their homes who clean and cook literally from before dawn until they go to bed.

Tanzanians care intently for the appearance of their cars, houses, and bodies, and meals are a big deal. Our cook gets up before all of us and prepares breakfast, then washes our dishes and starts making lunch. After washing the lunch dishes, she spends all afternoon on dinner, washes those dishes, cleans the kitchen, and goes to bed after us. Another woman comes from early morning until almost dinnertime every day to clean, bringing along her sixteen-month- old baby, who toddles around without a diaper on and pees everywhere and somehow always finds our razors in the shower.

So what’s up with this arrangement? It’s 2012, right? Most American women I know are at least sporadic feminists and would probably scoff at this seemingly antiquated aspect of Tanzanian culture. The other volunteers and I, as much as we may be uncomfortable with the situation and as often as we might cook and clean for ourselves back home, enjoy our cook’s food and we sank quickly, perhaps a little too easily, into the luxury of someone else doing our dirty work.

Sure, some people have cooks and maids in America too. But something about this feels wrong – Westerners getting waited on by the natives. A friend recommended that I read The Ugly American before my trip, and I hereby re-recommend it to any first-world native traveling abroad. A fiction book based on American foreign policy in Communism-leaning Southeast Asia post-WWII, one of The Ugly American’s main premises is to show us why the Americans’ tactics there were ineffective. Our diplomats expected to move East and have every Western comfort transplanted there with them: cars, servants, chefs, luxurious accommodations, the English language, plenty of alcohol and fancy parties. This resulted in vulnerability to espionage (by the help) and, most importantly, a loss of respect from the natives.

The thing is, even though Arusha itself is still overwhelmingly different than any American city, Mama’s house remains a welcome Western-style respite. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing; I left the United States to get away from our comfortable, high-maintenance culture and rough it for awhile. How do we balance the adjustment to a new culture with attachment to the old? 

Especially, how will I do that with my MacBook waiting for me every day when I get home from Golgotha? And with the help doing all my dishes and all the cooking? They barely even serve much traditional Tanzanian food because they know Westerners tend not to be fond of it; we eat pasta and sandwiches and rice.

We do pay a program fee to be here, which goes to buy our food and toilet paper and other necessities. Presumably the help receives a share of those funds, but it can’t be much. Our cook doesn’t know how old she is. She looks about twenty-five and she’s beautiful but doesn’t go out much, however much we beg her to come with us. I have never seen anyone spend as much time in one room as this young woman spends in this kitchen.

It’s her job though, right? Some women in America spend all day on their computers for their jobs. Others spend all day cooking and  cleaning. Is that okay? And if so, okay with whom?

2 thoughts on “Adjusting to Tanzanian Culture

  1. mário castro
    October 28, 2012

    Hi i think you should know UAE !!

  2. Tami Silvis
    September 29, 2012

    Enjoyed your article.. I am your mom’s best friend from high school… what an amazing journey you are on!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *