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.

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?

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.

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 security guards on break in Oyster Bay

Tanzania During The Pandemic: My Flight Experience

 

I’m putting it out there: I’ve been lazy. I should have gotten this post out weeks ago. I started right after arrival but kept putting it off for one reason or another. I’ve made my end-of-year resolution to get this out before 2020 closes. As of November 17th, I’ve been chilling in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. You probably know that already if you’ve read my other post. I’ve been asked several times to describe my airport-to-destination experience. Well, here’s a detailed description of what it was like traveling to Tanzania during the pandemic.

Am I crazy for Traveling To Tanzania During the Pandemic?

Why would you to Tanzania during the pandemic? Are you crazy?” I’ve gotten this question several times. I can’t say for sure. There’s always the possibility. Crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. Right?

What was it like at the airports?

My five airport experiences weren’t bad at all.

Raleigh-Durham International Airport

My flight was at 3:45 PM, Monday afternoon. So, that gave me ample time to print out my ticket to Tanzania and the return flight that I bought just in case it was needed for visa purposes. My flight consisted of 4 stops: Atlanta, Amsterdam, Kilimanjaro, and Dar es Salaam.

My mom dropped me off at RDU International Airport at around 1 PM. Check-in was pretty easy. One of my bags was overweight by a couple of pounds, but since I had 4 bags, I just moved a few things to another bag and all was well. In normal times, RDU would be teeming with eager travelers. However, this time, it was pretty dead. There were two people at the Delta Airlines kiosks– myself and an older gentleman. Eventually, three more people showed up and waited behind me (like 10 feet away from me). Check-in took no more than 5 minutes (including the overweight bag issue).

The security check was quick. I was shocked when no one asked to check further into my carry-on filled with teaching equipment. That has never happened before. From there, I went on to my gate, sat down, and waited to board the plane.

On the plane, all middle seats were left empty in order to create distance between passengers. I had a window seat and enjoyed not having anyone all up in my personal space.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

The stop was only 41 minutes. By the time I got to my gate, it was time to start boarding the plane. The airport was somewhat busy, but nowhere near as busy as usual. On the way to the international terminal, there were less than 10 people on the Plane Train. I got to my gate. There were actually a lot of people waiting to board. I’m not sure how many. I guess, maybe 50? Aboard the plane, I once again had a window seat and no one next to me. Since the flight was long, I welcomed the opportunity to pull out my blanket and pillow, prop my head against the window and stretch my legs across the empty seat. I slept pretty well.

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol

My stop was short. After disembarking, I made a beeline towards my gate, being cautious not to get too close to anyone. Since there were few travelers, distancing was no issue. Most people were masked. One guy was wearing a full hazmat suit. I used the restroom near my gate, which was so clean I had to take photos. I was quite impressed. Once at the gate, I sat down for about 20 minutes, snapped a couple of pictures, and then came the boarding call.

The KLM plane was huge. My seat was in the middle section. I had 3 seats all to myself. Shortly into the flight, I got tired. I pulled out my trusty pillow and blanket and stretched out across all three seats. Now, that was some great sleep!

Kilimanjaro

I was excited about arriving at Kilimanjaro Airport because that meant I had finally made it to what many refer to as Alkebulan, and I was in Tanzania, specifically. There was only one more short segment left. Any passengers headed to Dar es Salaam were not allowed to disembark at Kilimanjaro airport.

Julius Nyerere International Airports

As the announcement came that we were 20 minutes from landing in Dar es Salaam, I was all giddy. It was about 10:30 PM. After disembarking, we were asked to form a line. We passed through one by one. I handed over the health declaration forms we were asked to fill out on the plane and had my temperature taken. No fever. After accepting the small squirt of hand sanitizer, I went to the visa queue. I answered a few questions, received the visa stamp, and headed to another line to pay for the visa. I exchanged some money. After that, I was sent over to an immigration agent who checked my receipt and made sure my passport and visa were good to go. I was released.

I found my bags at the baggage claim, went through the security check, and was finally free to begin my adventure in Tanzania. There was a small group of people waiting to greet their arriving friends and family. My friend Raphael and my driver were waiting for me. We greeted one another and headed off to my hostel so I could get some rest before heading to my nonexistent hotel the next morning (a subject for another post).

Masks and Eating

Rewind: I arrived at RDU sporting a stylish white cloth mask with a valve. At the Delta check-in desk, I was told that that type of mask (valved) wasn’t allowed on the plane. I had to replace it with a surgical mask. I had another mask, but it was too much of a hassle getting it out of my carry-on, so I just wore the surgical one. Holding my breath, and using my special mask application strategy, slipped it on. It was too loose, so I tweaked it to get it to fit. At my gate, I rummaged through my carry-on, pulled out my cute starry night cloth mask, and slipped it under my surgical mask. I wore that for the first couple of flights, but eventually got rid of the surgical mask when it felt like breathing was becoming more of a task than an involuntary bodily function.

Fast forward: Passengers were only allowed to remove the masks when actively eating or drinking. When meals were served, I used a super special technique I developed. I simply picked up a spoonful, lifted the bottom portion of my mask just enough to unveil my mouth, halted my breathing for a split second, and shoveled the food into my mouth. I probably looked funny, but I didn’t care.

Final Thoughts On Traveling To Tanzania During the Pandemic

Overall, I had a pleasant experience traveling to Tanzania during the pandemic. It was different. Different isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I really enjoyed having the extra space for stretching out and getting the best sleep I’ve ever had in main cabin seating.

Have you traveled during the pandemic? How would you describe your experience?