Tanzanian Customs and Social Etiquette

Why learn about Tanzanian customs?

One of the most appealing aspects of traveling to a foreign country is experiencing the culture. Culture includes customs and etiquette. Tanzania is an extremely beautiful country with a lot to offer in terms of nature, food, and culture. The people are generally warm and welcoming toward visitors but hold fast to their customs and beliefs. When visiting any country, it’s important to respect the local etiquette as best you can. Get familiar with this list of Tanzanian customs to avoid insulting the locals.

Engaging with the locals

There are 126 languages spoken in Tanzania. Swahili is the national language of Tanzania. It incorporates Bantu and classical Arabic dialects. English is widely spoken and the other languages are of indigenous origins. As an”Mzungu (um-zoon-goo)”, or foreigner, you will benefit from knowing some basic words and phrases in the national language. Knowing just a little goes a long way!

Be sure to say, “Hi.” When entering a space, greet everyone in the room.

“Mambo!” In Tanzania, personal and community relationships are important. Tanzanians are generally friendly and excited to meet someone new. You will undoubtedly hear “Mambo” constantly throughout your visit, so be sure to check out popular Swahili greetings so you’ll know how to respond.

Put your dirty left hand away! If you’re the first to extend your hand for a handshake, make sure it’s not your left hand. In Tanzania, the left hand is dirty and the right hand is clean. The belief is the left hand is used for washing and cleaning oneself in the bathroom. Use your right hand when greeting and giving items and accepting items.

a woman walking on the seashore
Photo by Denys Gromov on Pexels.com

Public displays of affection

Get a room! Tanzanian society is conservative. PDA is offensive. Any cuddling and kissing should be done in private. However, it isn’t uncommon to see people of the same sex holding hands, as this is a sign of friendship.

Eating

Ugali is a staple food in Tanzania. Ugali is a thick porridge, similar to fufu, that’s eaten with the hands. Since Tanzanians typically eat using their fingers, ugali is used for scooping the other items on the dish.

Wash your hands before and after eating. Many traditional dishes are eaten with your fingers, so whether you’re eating alone or in a communal setting, be sure your hands are clean. At communal tables and some restaurants, someone will come around with a pitcher of water, maybe some soap, and a bowl for you to clean your hands.

Put your dirty left hand away, again! Remember, what’s associated with the left hand? Don’t use it when eating.

Don’t sniff your food. For us Westerners, part of enjoying a meal is taking in the aroma. In Tanzania, however, it’s rude to sniff your food. The person who prepares the food is held in high regard. So, sniffing your food is an insult to the cook and implies that you suspect something’s wrong with it—maybe you think it’s rotten or poisoned?

Ugali and fish zanzibar
It was hard not to take a sniff. This was so delicious!

Stay in your lane. When eating from a communal dish, eat from the portion that is in front of you.

Don’t turn down food or drink when it is offered. Refusing someone’s offer of food or drink can be seen as rude. Even if you don’t want it, just try at least a little of it. You may find it to be quite the treat as did I when I accepted some tamarind ice cream.

Older people

Respect the elders. Elders are held in high regard and are believed to possess superior knowledge because they’ve been around longer. Treat them respectfully. Here’s how to greet an elder in Swahili.

Photography

Ask before you snap. Tanzanians are generally okay with having their pictures taken, it’s still a good idea to ask before you do. There are some who have superstitious beliefs about having their pictures taken, so to be on the safe side, ask before snapping.

Tanzanian drivers in Bagamoyo
These drivers in Bagamoyo were happy to have their photos taken.

Religion

Tanzanians are very spiritual. About a third of Tanzanians practice Christianity, a third practice Islam, and yet another third practice an indigenous religion. Among the Asian communities, Buddhism and Hinduism are practiced.

Clothes

Tanzanians take pride in dressing well. Many wear religious garments. The Maasai wear their traditional robes. Others wear Western-style outfits. With strong Muslim and Christian influences throughout the country, the dress code is one of modesty.

Maasai wearing traditional robes
Maasai security guards on break in Oyster Bay

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