7 unique experiences with Tanzanians I will never forget

Oh Tanzania – you made me feel like such a FOB (fresh-off-the-boat), like a typical mzungu aka white person, and like an idiot at so many occasions. You gave me the worst culture shock I’ve ever had in my life but at the same time you taught me so many lessons and showed me how loving, kind and generous your people are. Here are some of my interactions with locals I have learned from the most:

1. Holding hands

I went to meet with my German friend Lena at Coco Beach, a public beach for mostly locals, which gets super crowded during the weekends. She has lived in Dar es Salaam for two years already and has had a great exposure to Tanzanian culture, also because of her Tanzanian boyfriend. On the last Saturday of the month, she always helps cleaning up Coco Beach and therefore is recognized by locals quite a lot.

When they came up to her, she always introduced me as well. After exchanging our names and telling them where I’m from, one of them kept holding my hand while talking to mostly Lena. I was standing there, listening to them, and he losely held my hand. What the…? I had never experienced this before and it felt a bit awkward. I didn’t know how to remove my hand from his without coming off as rude. About ten minutes later, he let go.

Luckily, I had heard about this before: Tanzanians like to hold hands, even two men, and also when doing business. Very interesting! Even though I wasn’t fully unfamiliar with this, it still felt weird because this NEVER happened to me before other than with guys who are interested in me romantically, obviously.

A few moments later, as we walked further down the beach, this scenario happened again and I thought, “Well, now I know what it’s like at least, but it still feels weird AF.” Lena told me that even after two years, she still shared my feelings.

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2. Tinder dates and washing hands

Just to meet some locals, I also went on Tinder and matched with a photographer, Michael. I really didn’t have the intention of anything other than befriending a few locals really (well, at least that’s what I thought at first). So, we went for dinner at a mishkaki (meat skewers) place. I was the only mzungu (white person), so – yay! – Finally a real local place! The “restaurant” was outside, a few tents over plastic tables and chairs and completely in the dark because it was night time. The only light was the one burning close to their kitchen.

First, the server brought us two plates, one with six beef mishkakis, and one with homemade fries, something that resembled tomato salsa, and two baked bananas – the bananas weren’t sweet, nor salty, I only had this type once before once and found out they were unripened plantains. No utensils came. Then, the server stood next to me with something I was unable to make out in the dark. He seemed to be waiting on me to do something. For seconds. “You’re supposed to wash your hands,” Michael finally helped me. Wow, what a mzungu moment that was. Whoopsie! To my defense, it was really dark. Not sure if this made anything better. The server then proceeded to squeeze liquid soap out of a plastic bottle and pour water over my hands with a plastic can. The dirty water collected in a bowl he was carrying as well. Then, it was finally time to dig into some deliciousness!

After dinner and another round of hand washing, I asked for a typical dessert after, but Michael said I should go to Dubai for that (joke among Tanzanians, apparently – going to the desert – get it?). He offered to buy me a yogurt from a store around the corner. You know, my sweet tooth didn’t say no, of course. The “store” was a literal hole in the wall, everything was behind bars. If you asked the clerk for something, he’d give it to you. A refrigerator outside of the bars tried to keep some drinks, milk and yogurt cool – notice, the emphasis here on “tried.” Michael looked for the coolest yogurt and handed it to me. Dessert mission accomplished!

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3. The effects of Polio (infantile paralysis)

I thought I had witnessed my fair share of deformations, injuries, and amputations and what not on the streets of Los Angeles. But in Tanzania, on a drive to the airport of Dar es Salaam, I saw something I’d never forget: a man whose back was bent so much that his head almost touched the ground. Kind of like Tarzan, but this man’s legs were straight and he was unable to lift his head or straighten his back!

On another visit to Dar’s downtown district and on my way to the beach, I saw people sitting or lying on a piece of carton because their legs were so deformed or half as long as they should be, so that they couldn’t walk with them.

Supposedly these deformities are the effects of Polio or infantile paralysis, a now almost extinct disease transmitted by feces (i.e. in drinking water, etc.).

 

4. Maasai confessing his love

When I came back from my usual round with my dog Georgie, the Maasai guards on my street greeted me. The one that I had taken pictures of and talked to almost daily, Kereku, came to me and we exchanged the usual “how are you” and things. Until he said: “Remember what you told me last Sunday?” Awww sheit, he even knew the day. I clearly didn’t know what he was talking about. “Uhm… No…?” “That you didn’t have a boyfriend.” Uh oh, I knew where this was going to go. I just can’t lie and say yes I have one “Yes. And?” “Can I be your boyfriend?” “Woaaah. Noooo. No. No. I do not want a Tanzanian boyfriend [Don’t want to deal with long distance, but guess what happened a week later – I had one]. I have no idea when I will be back either. Nor do I want you to be my boyfriend.” “But it’s ok. Right now, we can be friends. It takes time. We can talk on the phone. See, I know in Germany, people say ‘I like you’ and ‘I love you.’ I like you, but more than that. I love you. I really love you.” Woaaah again. What am I supposed to say to someone who confessed “his love” for me after we talk for about 5 minutes per day in passing. Also, this guy is smart and I know that he tries to befriend a lot of tourists and white people who seem rich. Nothing wrong with this at all, but this may indicate that he has different motives… I’ve heard of a lot of people befriending Europeans and Americans and the latter inviting them to come to their countries.

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5. Kariakoo – an extremely busy marketplace

If you’ve been to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the LA fashion district, or a medina, you kind of have an idea what you’d get yourself into when visiting Kariakoo in Dar es Salaam, but then again – not really. This marketplace has an interesting history being both occupied by British and Germans, who wanted the location to become an African township. Nowadays, Kariakoo is a booming and busy market with countless shops to buy clothes, food, tools, furniture and everything else you can imagine spread out into several blocks, alleys, and basements.

My new German friend Max and I took the daladala, a bus from which looks like it’s from the 70s, us being the only mzungus – white foreigners. Max has been calling Tanzania his second home for a few years now, speaks Swahili and knows his way around fortunately, because by myself I would have gotten lost for sure! You don’t pay before you get on the bus, but a “cash collector” asks you to pay the fare once you’re on it. He’s also the one who yells the destination of the bus at every bus stop. I haven’t found a way Tanzanians mark a bus stop other than by people who are standing together at a corner or place. Most likely, you’ll find people selling food or other small stuff around the stop.

I wish I could have taken my camera, but I was advised not to several times. Also, Max told me that his backpack had been opened several times before at various spots around this Kariakoo.

I’ll try to describe what you can expect there: When we got off the bus, people were everywhere! Not only were there numerous a shop in every single window and building, sellers also advertised their goods on the street in front of the stores. Men carried heavy loads and packages on their shoulders and plastic bowls with water on their heads, women fruit and other stuff. I saw one woman balancing a total of about 25 or more buckets stacked into each other on the top of her head – horizontally. Some men walked around with snacks, whistled to people, or used castanets to gain the attention of potential buyers.

 

6. Hospitality on another level

I had posted this on Facebook as well already, but for those of you who missed it, I copied it here because this experience was absolutely amazing!

Since I got back from my safari, I had not really been comfortable going outside a lot. People here stare at me, look at me up and down, and I had been warned about theft and kidnappings. I also hadn’t made much of an effort to meet expats or the like. In short – I was feeling alone, pitying myself, being such a cry-baby and someone I myself would have given the advice to “stop being a f@ck!ng pu$$y” (FB doesn’t like profanity). Fortunately, I have friends who told me this, too.

So, I took my pu$$y a$$ upstairs to introduce myself to another housesitter. Was it hard? Nope. Did it require a lot of effort or courage from me? Nope. Should I have done this earlier? Yes!

We ended up having a great dinner with amazing food yesterday and decided to take a walk on the beach with Georgie, the dog I’m taking care of, this morning.

As Georgie was running around the beach, wagging her tail, being her happy little self, she caught the attention of two siblings who stayed at their parents house over the holidays and we started talking. Literally after 5 minutes, us and Georgie were invited into their home. Not only that, they fed us like royalty: fresh fruit, Chipsi Mayai (Tanzania potato-egg omelette dish), chocolate, and more.

It felt like we had been longtime friends and we were sharing travel adventures and life stories. Time flew by so fast that we didn’t realize we must have stayed for about four hours…

So, what I want to tell you with this story is that if you are being a p… I mean… afraid to go outside and meet people, you will miss out on making amazing new connections. They won’t come to you if you stick to yourself. YOU have to put yourself out there when you travel. YOU have to make the effort. No one else is going to do that for you. But once you do, the results are most likely to exceed your expectations!

And this doesn’t only apply to travel…

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7. Interacting with the Maasai people

This is an excerpt of my safari blog post:

The image that burned itself into my head on our way back from the safari was a Maasai in his traditional clothing taking his herd of cows across the street, with a wooden stick in one hand, while being on his cell phone with his other hand. Unfortunately, this happened a bit further away, so I wasn’t able to snap a great picture. But that shows you the transformation of societies by technology.

As soon as we left the Arusha airport in our car towards our camp, I saw hundreds of Maasai at the side of the road herding their cattle, sheep, or goats. Even small children at the age of 7 or 8 took care of herds. Some moved their animals, others played in the shade or just sat under a tree. Maasai are a semi-nomadic people locating their animals from place to place to feed them. The men take care of this, the women build the houses and feed the kids. In touristy areas, they sell beautiful jewelry and other things with beads. They’re dressed in a vibrant red, purple, or blue often times, their jewelry is colorful, and their ears are often pierced. Sometimes, the holes in their ears are stretched out. Some of their cheeks are scarred with circles. When you get closer to them, they all have a distinctive odor and not the best teeth: Few may be missing, the rest are stained with brown.

The Maasai speak Maa, their own language, Swahili, and sometimes English. Their first marriage may still be arranged by their parents, some will then look for more wives. Others, such as Christian Maasai may stick to one. One wife is worth ten cows.

It’s incredible to think about how their lives are. Some live in huts out of clay and straw, some in more structured but very simple houses, also depending on whether they live in a city or village. Those who live in the city still set themselves apart by wearing their traditional clothes. Also, the majority don’t take office jobs, for example, but rather guard jobs because these require courage.

Whenever they saw our jeep, they’d either wave, come up to us with their handcrafted goods in hope we’d buy them, or simply stop and look at us passing. Some with a smile on their faces, others with no expressions. If our car stopped, ten of them – they wait at spots where tourists are likely to stop – surrounded us, peeked into our windows, and asked for pens, change, or offered jewelry. If they didn’t get what they wanted, some would try puppy eyes and ask three more times, but they were never angry. Even children at the age of three or four knew how to ask for things or sell something. They learned whatever English words were necessary.

What stunned me at our campsite also, was that the tents had no way to be locked. And even though the Maasai may not have the electronic gadgets and other things us “Westerners” call riches, I was never for a single moment scared that anyone would steal from me. All I have experienced from them was kindness. And because of that I do wish to go back and interact with more of them.

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And here’s something I had already put on Facebook as well:

These two Maasai always greet me and the dog I’m taking care of. I’m so fascinated by their culture, their tradition, their looks, and how their lives are so different than mine. Today, I talked to Kereku (the one in all red; his Christian name is Ole) to get to know more about them. He said he came to Dar es Salaam three years ago to make money to later purchase cows (cows & kids = wealth for Maasai). He lives in a 3 bedroom apartment with 20 other Maasai who came to the big city to make money. If you’re a Maasai, you’re welcome in other Maasai’s homes as well, i.e. in Kenya or Tanzania. Kereku explains that the Maasai culture has been changing. Whereas it was common to have more wives in the last generations, one wive is enough for some nowadays. Kereku wants one wive and 3 kids. He also wants to put them through school, so they can learn English as well. He paid for his own three month English class and wants to have a passport one day to “go everywhere and see everything.”

Both of them have a few dot-shaped scars on their arms, burnt on them when they were younger, to show that these men are strong.

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And: Being the only white person in a lot of places

This is going to be a separate blog post you can look forward to because there were just too many emotions surrounding this!

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