The people of Tanzania have a rich cultural heritage that spans back centuries. Home to a huge variety of ethnic groups, tribes, and blends of religions, it’s easy to imagine a long list of do’s and don’ts. Fortunately, the list isn't very long at all. Aside from the obvious politeness and friendliness, here’s all you need pay attention to:
Keep it simple with a smile, a hello, and a handshake. There’s no need to rush this; the pace of life is much slower and emphasis on community and people is paramount.
If you're the first to extend a hand, make sure it’s your right as opposed to your left (more on this later). A prolonged shake indicates friendship, so don’t worry if it starts to feel more like you're holding hands for the duration of your conversation.
It’s also proper to greet everyone in the room or group; only greeting the host may be mistaken as rudely ignoring others.
Although the first language of many Tanzanians is often specific to their ethnic group, most people will speak English and Swahili – the latter being the official national language. Having a few key phrases up your sleeve will make all the difference when it comes to both your hospital placement and engaging with people out in the local area.
If you’re not familiar with the term ‘Mzungu’, you will be once in Tanzania. Meaning ‘aimless wanderer’, ‘nomad’ or ‘traveller’, the word is reserved for visiting Westerners and is in no way intended to be derogatory or offensive.
In Tanzania it will be assumed that your left hand has been used for ‘toilet duties’. While we're certainly not suggesting that you abide by this assumption, as a matter of ettiquete you should keep your right hand dominant – especially when it comes to greeting, eating, and giving or receiving objects.
Don’t smell it, just eat it. Sniffing your food in an obvious fashion before tucking in is considered rude. It would be like loudly announcing, ‘I am suspicious that this food is out of date or maybe even poisonous’ to the entire table.
When it comes to helpings, take a small amount of food the first time dishes are passed around. That way you can accept second helpings later, a sign of gratitude.
While excessive PDA is considered nauseating by some of us in the West, it’s plain taboo in Tanzania. Kissing, hugging, or holding hands with your partner is something to save for private time. If, however, you spot same-sex hand holding in public, it’s not in gallant defiance of Tanzanian custom, it’s merely a sign of friendship and is culturally acceptable.
Respect your Elders
Elders are treated with higher levels of respect and reverence than anyone else, as they're considered more knowledgeable and experienced than the rest of the community, which is probably true. There’s no rulebook for how this is done, so just be on your best behaviour and don't forget the handshakes.
When a photo is taken of them, members of certain ethnic groups believe that a piece of their soul is taken along with it. Be respectful by asking permission beforehand, or just keep a lid on the lens.
Having sent thousands of students abroad, we’ve got extensive knowledge of the countries we operate in. From cultural do's and don'ts to in-country language lessons, we’ll make sure you’re prepped to engage with different cultures respectfully and responsibly.
If you want to find out more about opportunities we offer in Tanzania, click here for our programme in Dar es Salaam.