Tanzania: Culture Shock upon Arrival

jess
Maasai Land: Inkajijik & Duka Ⓒ Jessica Gatfield

Immediate Culture Shock: Was I really warned?

Airports are a funny thing. Every single airport is different; they vary in size, shape, amenities and of course people. But, wherever you go, airports will always feel familiar in one way or another. Maybe its due to the Government requirement to have a duty free store or the somewhat functioning arrival and departure lounges. Regardless, they never prepare you for what awaits you a few kilometers away outside of the airport gates. I found that Kili airport, as tiny as it is, still hinders your brain from processing that you are now stepping foot into a developing country and what you see will be very different to what you’re accustomed to.

Upon exiting the airport, you soon realise that it’s location couldn’t seem anymore out of place. Placed in the center of Maasailand, at every angle you witness Masai herding livestock across the road. The Maasai are dressed in vibrantly checkered Shúkà’s, striking in colour and tartan-like patterns, ultimately giving the Scot’s a run for their money with their affiliated national print. It’s a far cry from daily demonstrations of ambling youths stumbling into the road with a WKD in one hand and a fag in the other.

Horizon, Horizon, Horizon and ummm Horizon?

The ability to see the horizon in all four cardinal directions is a foreign concept. Dry desert land soon becomes enticing upon the eye, an opposing change from built up cities, terraced housing and over population. Your eyes immediately begin to scan for housing and shops: where do the Masai live and how do they buy their bare necessities? Well, you guessed it, housing is essentially a mud hut. In Maasai terms, they are named Inkajijik’s and are not entirely made from mud. A combination of sticks, mud, grass and even cow excrement is used to keep them pieced together and they are fascinating to admire. You’ve seen them before, on TV, in photographs and learnt about them whilst at school. However, seeing them first hand is thrilling and you feel like a child at school learning something exciting all over again.

. In terms of shops, you won’t be seeing many Tesco Express or Nisa Local’s. What you will find are small Duka’s (the Swahili word for shop). These are usually small concrete buildings, plastered with Coca Cola or Pepsi advertisements and trade is completed through an array of metal bars that segregate the shop owner and customer alike. They tend to sell the likes of fizzy drinks, bottled water and snacks. But you soon realise they sell all sorts of strange items; from kerosine to nappies and Heinz Ketchup to soggy fly ridden samosas. Noted tip: never underestimate a Duka.

Coca Cola is EVERYWHERE

 Ⓒ Jessica Gatfield
Ⓒ Jessica Gatfield

Spotting Coca Cola signage: It’s like an intense version of The Yellow Car Game except punching your opponents arm in this instance would cause some serious damage. Coca Cola owns Tanzania. Every road sign, every Duka wall, every outdoor garden chair and table even Kilimanjaro bottled water is owned by The Coca Cola Company (Really, it’s true!). You begin to realise that without this brown fizzy drink, most Tanzanian’s could not make a living. Giving credit to the multi-billion pound company, they are helping African entrepreneurs by setting up Manual Distribution Centres in which locals can make a liveable income and help alleviate their poverty by selling the Coca Cola products along with the branded image. Furthermore, with the fizzy beverage priced between 600tsh to 800tsh (between 20-30 pence!) for a glass bottle from a roadside duka, you can see why it is hugely popular and affordable for both foreigners and locals.

Ⓒ Jessica Gatfield The Hustle and Bustle within the Moshi region
Ⓒ Jessica Gatfield
The Hustle and Bustle within the Moshi region

Poverty: Yes Jess it exists

The word poverty doesn’t acquire a true meaning until you witness it first hand. You feel guilty for being fascinated and intrigued by it, you stare, you gasp and then soon enough you begin to feel helpless and guilty. You assume form of a guilt-ridden intruder, imposing on a foreign culture you haven’t yet grasped, carrying with you an invisible picket sign that clearly states you originate from a land of greed, wealth and materialism. You witness Mama’s carrying large sacks of rice on their heads, young children walking miles to find water and men hauling large carts by hand in the sweltering heat. It makes taking the stairs instead of the lift seem like a piece of cake.

Random Police Checks

You spot them ahead in the distance. Police women with their batons, pacing up and down the side of the road flagging you down. You pull over, reassurances exchanged by your driver. They see your terrified expression, your pale white skin and testing the water speak to you in Swahili. They know the drill and they know that 99.9% of the time they will be face to face with a blank fearful expression. These random police checks are common. In fact very much so. The policing in Tanzania is evidently very corrupt and any chance to make some extra money on the side and for the victim to avoid jail time is a game both players have to take part in. Whether you have a squeaky clean driving licence and a fully functioning car or not, there will always be a backhander of monetary exchange and no questions asked.

Are you being Genuine?

On a more positive note, the biggest culture shock in Tanzania is people’s kindness. You are greeted everywhere with a smile, a greeting in either Swahili or English and a helping hand if you appear to be lost. Initially you are apprehensive, defensive, distrustful. Many times the local person will pick up on your body language and laugh asking you up front, ‘Why are you so scared? Just relax!’ Ultimately, as learnt from countless hours of watching horror films, the daily news and being taught from a young age to not speak to strangers, it is instilled in you that everybody is out to get you. Throughout my time in Tanzania, I did not hear one story of somebody being physically hurt or taken advantage of in a situation where somebody was offering to help you. That is not to say it is unheard or that it does not occur, I am simply implying that if you are willing to put your trust in the local people, they are willing to help you. Not to say sometimes this isn’t without a fee. Tipping someone goes a long way, in particular if somebody goes out of their way to escort you to a particular location or on a trip to an unknown area of town or finds your dream Ebony elephant statue from his brother Malika who owns a shop two streets away. To be truthful, Tourism is easily one of or if not THE highest income for Tanzanian citizens in the developing areas meaning that when money is involved, kindness usually follows.

As cliche as it may sound, Culture Shock was more shocking than anticipated. It took a week to two weeks to settle in and to finally adjust, which I believe is extremely normal. Without the initial impact and slap in the face culture shock, the overall experience of Tanzania would never have been as exhilarating, alluring and wonderful as it turned out to be.

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