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

Learn Swahili: How To Greet People In Kiswahili

Greetings are an essential part of every culture and daily conversations. On your visit to Tanzania or the East African region, you’ll want to be familiar with some common greetings. My aim here, is to help you learn Swahili greetings that you will hear often. In fact, you will hear and use most of these several times a day. Don’t fret if your language skills aren’t the best. The locals you meet will appreciate your effort in trying to use the language. Since English is widely spoken, you won’t have too much to worry about, especially in the larger cities. Depending on the length of your stay in the region, your fluency will improve quickly because you’ll hear and use these greetings so often. You’ll also find that everyone in Tanzania is a Mwalimu (teacher) and will be happy to help you learn Swahili.

Swahili is a Bantu language that connects a wide region of East Africa. It is the national language of Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya and is also a lingua franca of several other countries throughout Eastern and Southern Africa.

Swahili Hellos

You’ll meet a lot of nice people as you explore Tanzania. Many a great friendship starts with a simple “Hello”, and Tanzanians have plenty of ways to say it.

Jambo! (Hello!)

Jambo is popular among foreigners because it’s usually the one word we learn before heading to East Africa. During my entire time in Dar es Salaam, only one person greeted me with Jambo to which I replied “Jambo“.

If you are alone and greeted with Hujambo, your expected response is Sijambo. When someone greets you with Hujambo, they’re asking you if you are having any matters or issues. Responding with Sijambo means you are not having any issues. If you are responding on behalf of a group, reply with Hatujambo (We have no issues). If you want to reciprocate the greeting, use Hujambo. To greet multiple people, use Hamjambo?

Shikamo.

Greet an elder or person of importance with Shikamo. If there are multiples of such persons, use the plural form Shikamoni. Shikamo means “I respect you.” The proper response is Marahaba which is a blessing upon you.

Mambo!

I heard and used this one all day, every day. Mambo is an informal way of saying Hello. When greeted with Mambo, respond with Poa (Cool) or Safi (Clean/Fine).

Mzima? (Are you complete?)

Respond back with Mzima.

Salama? (Are you safe/at peace?)

The appropriate response is Salama.

Mambo vipi? / Vipi?

Use this when you want to ask, “What’s up?” To respond, you can use Poa or Safi.

Habari? (What’s the news?)

Habari yako? (How are you?)

Habari gani? (How are you?)

Habari za safari? (How was your trip?)

Habari za asubuhi? (Good morning.)

Habari za mchana? (Good afternoon.)

Habari za jioni? (Good evening.)

Habari leo? (How are you, today?)

Habari za kazi? (How is work?)

Saying “Thank you” and “You’re Welcome In Swahili

Asante (Thank you)

Tanzanians are quite welcoming. You will be welcomed to Tanzania, to a meal, to someone’s home, and into businesses. Show gratitude with Asante (Thank you) or Asante Sana (Thank you very much). If responding to more than one person, Asanteni (Thank you all) is appropriate.

Karibu/Karibu Sana (Welcome. / You’re very welcome.)

As previously stated, you will receive many welcomes. If you accept, you’ll respond with Asante or Asante sana. If you do not accept, use the respectful negative response La, asante (No. Thank you.). If you are doing the welcoming, Karibu is used for one person and Karibuni for multiple people.

Introduce Yourself In Swahili

Jina lako ni nani? (What is your name?)

Introduce yourself with Jina langu ni (your name here). Jina means “name”, langu means “my“, and ni means “is”.

Nafurahi kukuona. (Nice to meet you.)

Swahili Goodbyes

For the goodbyes, you can simply reply back with the same words.

Kwaheri! (Goodbye!)

Use Kwaheri when talking to one person and Kwahereni when talking to multiple people.

Lala Salama. (Good night.)

Tutaonana baadaye! (See you later!)

Tutaonana! (See you!)

Baadaye! (Later!)

To add a more personal touch, terms of endearment such as Dada (sister), Kaka (brother) are often used. I added those so you’re not caught off guard when someone refers to you using them.

If you found this list helpful in your quest to learn Swahili, drop a comment!

Happy travels!