Learn Tanzanian Cultures

Tanzania is formerly known as Tanganyika, a name that was given to the country by a British civil servant in the early 1920’s (Tanga meaning sail and Nyika meaning arid plain). The previously known German East Africa was then became known as Tanganyika Territory. In 1964, Tanganyika was joined with Zanzibar and other offshore islands to become what is known as today: United Republic of Tanzania.

Being a former colony of both Germany and Britain, architectural styles in Tanzania reflect Arab, German, and British influence and occupation. There is also a long rich history of slave trade and other goods that can be seen in the architectural remains and buildings, as well as culture of the coastal towns and offshore Zanzibar Island (The Portuguese, Arabs and Indians and Chinese were also involved in this trade). For instance, ruins of Arab mosques as well as nineteenth-century stone houses on narrow streets can be seen in Bagamoyo, which was one of the main endpoints of the East African slave trade. There are also tombs embedded with Chinese ceramics dating to the twelfth century.

Suburban dwellings, most of which are built along a grid pattern, include the Swahili house, a rectangular structure made of either stone with a corrugated roof or earth on a wooden frame with a thatch roof. This type of house is found all along the coast.

There are many factors that have contributed to the national identity of Tanzanians.

Kiswahili – This is the lingua-franca of the nation, is spoken and revered by all, and is a compulsory subject in schools.
The unification of Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form a United Republic.
Development of Tanzanian socialism as endorsed by first president Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and sanctioned in the Arusha Declaration of 1967. As an expression of social collectivity, ujamaa villages were created – whose core structure was based on mutual assistance and cooperation.
National Resources such as Mt Kilimanjaro and other natural attractions such as the Serengeti and the world’s largest caldera, Ngorongoro crater as well as Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world, contribute to the Nations sense of national identity.

There are more than 120 ethnic tribes in Tanzania. The largest ethnic groups include the Sukuma (over three million), Chagga, Haya, and Nyamwezi (over one million each). Despite the numerous cultural diversity represented by all these tribes, they are all united by use of Swahili or Kiswahili – a coastal Bantu language with Arabic influence. In his quest for his people to find identity in themselves as one people, the first president Julius Nyerere encouraged all Tanzanians to communicate in Swahili. The use of Swahili as a single common language has facilitated trade, political debate, nationalism and information dissemination. The Tanzanians have strong feelings of national pride and cohesion, and this strong sense of nationalism backed up with the use of a common language has enabled Tanzanians to resolve most internal conflicts without resorting to violence keeping the country at peace for over two decades, in comparison to most of its neighbours.
English is also spoken by most of the Tanzanians of post-secondary education in addition to their tribal languages. When traveling it’s always a good idea to go with a little local language knowledge. Here is a list of helpful Swahili phrases.

The staple food in Tanzania depends on the region that one is coming from. The people from the North West prefer plantains, those from the South West prefer Ugali and those along the coast prefer rice. – these staple carbohydrates that are unique in each region are accompanied by a fish, beef, goat, chicken, or mutton stew or fried pieces of meat, along with several types of vegetables or condiments, such as beans and sukuma wiki pumpkin or sweet potatoes. Walking along the streets especially in urban market areas, many delicacies are sold such as fried plantains, sweet potatoes, charcoal roasted maize on the cob, pieces of dried or fried fish, mshikaki, grilled pieces of meat, samosas, chapatis among many other finger foods. It is also common to find local brews sold in local bars such as the Konyagi a popular spirit.

The extended family is the basic family structure. In most cases, the man is the head of the home and usually makes all major decisions. Throughout the nation, children are raised with the strong influence of parents as well as close relatives, friends, and neighbours. However, the market economy has placed significant pressure on the stability of the domestic unit and the extended family. Educated, wealthy family members are often called upon to provide resources to other family members for their education and general welfare. Elders are honoured and respected by the rest of the community.

In rural areas especially, the role of women and girls is basically to take care of the household chores, take care of children and work in the fields. The men also work in farms, care for their livestock and make the important family decisions. However, all these roles are changing gradually with the increase in development, and increased girl child education. These divisions of labour however are not so pronounced in urban areas.

Politeness, respect and modesty are virtues that highly valued by Tanzanians. The country has harmonious national culture that is based on subtle but strong social code of courtesy and respect. Take the time to greet people before you ask them for directions.
The ability to keep control of one’s temper and emotions in public is highly valued. Young men and women in rural areas are not supposed to show mutual affection in public in daylight, although this rule is often broken in urban centres. Boys and men, and however, are commonly seen in public holding hands as a sign of friendship or comradeship. In many rural areas, women are not supposed to smoke, be seen in a drunken stupor in public talk in a raised voice in an uncontrolled manner.

Handshakes are very important in social etiquette. Handshakes are required, regardless of how many people you are greeting. For example, if you enter a room with 30 people gathered for a meeting, it is usually expected that you will take the time to greet each individual with a handshake. Always greet the oldest person first, and then proceed to the rest of the people finishing with the youngest, children. To skip or rush this element in the greeting process is the height of poor manners.
Tanzanians frequently continue holding hands throughout a conversation. Note that the right hand is usually used for eating, while the left is traditionally used for toilet duties. You should try not to pass items to others with your left hand. When receiving items from others, do so with both hands, or with the right hand while touching the left hand to your right elbow as a sign of respect and courtesy.
People are generally addressed by their academic, professional or honorific title followed by their surname. If the person is unknown to you, then to call them by their most distinguished title is appropriate – Mr., Mrs., Dr., etc.
Tanzanians may also be addressed as mother of so and so, or father of so and so. For instance, the mother and father of Mary may be referred to as ‘Mama Mary’ and ‘Baba Mary’ respectively. Referring to your friends’ parents in such a manner shows respect.

It is important to dress modestly In Tanzania. Wearing clothes that are too revealing shows a sign of disrespect. In Zanzibar especially, it is important to dress modestly out of respect for Muslim cultural beliefs. Women should be covered above the elbow and knees. No midriffs should be showing.

Tanzania is popular for its sophisticated indigenous healing systems found in almost all Tanzanian ethnic groups. Healing can cure almost anything ranging from barrenness and infertility, as well as love matters, psychological problems, social problems such as finding a job, a lover, or even financial breakthrough to complicated chronic and infectious illnesses. All these are facilitated by the mganga (medicine man/ traditional healer). Predicated on a holistic approach to health, traditional healers treat body, mind, and spirit as an integrated system, often in the communal sense of the ‘social body.’

When invited for a meal, you should accept the meal that is offered to show that you accept their hospitality. The best course of action is to behave formally. When in doubt, watch what others are doing and follow their lead. It is considered polite to finish everything on your plate, although it is not mandatory.
Tanzanians, like other African countries are generally social, and visiting a friend or relative does not require any serious prior plans or schedules. It is common for people to visit each other impromptu and normally, a meal is offered.
Neighbourliness is common, and many Tanzanians in the same community look out for each other, assisting each other where need be even in trivial things such as neighbours borrowing cooking items from each other, and children all play together in the same neighbourhood.

There are hundreds of petty offenses in Tanzania where fines are charged as set by the law. However, although stealing is common in Tanzania, it is heavily enforced through mob justice. Anyone even suspected or accused of stealing is likely to be severely beaten, and then burnt to death by a nearby crowd. This is commonly known as ‘mob justice..

Christianity and Islam are the predominant religions in Tanzania where over 40% practice Christianity and over 35% practice Islam. Islam is the major religion of the coastal areas but is also practiced further inland. There are also those who follow traditional beliefs and there are also the Asian minority: the Hindus, Sikh’s and Ismailis.
Religion plays a big role in Tanzania, and many Christians families dress their best to attend church services together. There are charismatic services and people sing and dance and their voices can be heard in the streets. Easter and Christmas are major religious events that are observed by Christian faithful in the country by attending church and celebrating together with their extended families often by feasting together.
Ramadhan is also a month that is observed by the Muslims and many across the nation fast in the holy lunar month. Thereafter comes Eid, a time of feasting and festivity for the whole community.

Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar are the best spots for enjoying the many festivals in Tanzania. Here a few notable festivals that happen every year. Aside from the festivals mentioned below, Eid, Christmas, and Easter are also popular holidays. Be aware that Eid changes every year, so be sure to check your calendar.

Wanyambo Festival: In celebration of local culture, dance, music, costumes and food. Happens in Dar es Salaam in January.

Kiliman Adventure Challenge: A triathlon event that includes a hike up Mt Kilimanjaro, a mountain bike ride around the great circumference and a Kilimanjaro Marathon. Happens in February.

Kilimanjaro Marathon: This is a road race under the view of Kilimanjaro. The event even includes a half marathon. Happens in February.

Unification Day: April 26th. Signifies the unification of mainland Tanzania with Zanzibar.

Mzalendo Halisi Music Festival: A music festival held in Dar es Salaam in May.

Karibu Travel and Tourism Fair: A fair with many items for purchase from gemstones to safari gear. It’s the largest of such festivals in East Africa. Happens in Arusha around May/June.

Festival of the Dhow Countries: A film and music festival in Zanzibar. Happens in early July and goes for two weeks.

Mwaka Kogwa Festival: Happens in Zanzibar where the local men beat each other with banana stalks to settle arguments from the previous year. There is a big fire and a feast. A four day event happening in July/August.

Bagamoyo Arts Festival: The town of Bagamoyo between Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar holds a week-long event in September that celebrates music and dance.

Serengeti Wildebeest Migration: December through February the wildebeest numbers are at their peaks.

Tipping is usually done in USD but it can also be done with the local currency in Tanzania. In hotels tip bellhops and cleaning staff around $1-$2 a day or per bag. In restaurants, typically tip 5% if a service charge is not included. Round up your fare for any taxi rides.

Tipping your guide and porter is encouraged but not mandatory.

As with many developing nations, Tanzania has a plethora of environmental issues. As a visitor to this amazing place, it is our responsibility to minimize our impact. Do not buy any wildlife products that you do not know if they were obtained sustainably. Filter your water to eliminate the use of disposable plastic water bottles. This decreases the tourism impact on the waste stream. Use a cloth shopping bag when you shop in country. If you are welcomed into a home, be sure to finish your plate of food. Many people go hungry in this part of the world, finishing your plate ensures that no food goes to waste.

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