Project TOTO: The Cultural Briefing

Photograph of Tanzanian villagers, courtesy of ActionAid Australia

One of the most challenging aspects of Project TOTO is that I’ll have to build a rapport with my Tanzanian hosts and colleagues extremely quickly. So yesterday ActionAid Australia gave me a cultural briefing as well as the project briefing.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Tanzanians are generally very polite, and will avoid saying anything which they fear might offend. I’ll therefore have to encourage them to open up a bit — especially when blogging for a Western audience.
  2. Tanzanian society is still quite hierarchical. People respect age and authority. No-one will say they have a bad government or local official, except in very private conversations.
  3. While the population is split religiously roughly one-third each Muslim, Christian and traditional tribal religions, there’s no major tensions between them.
  4. Women are “quiet and humble”, especially in rural areas, and when there’s men around they’re unlikely to speak unless asked, or if it’s a one-to-one conversation.
  5. There’s less physical contact than we’re used to in Australia. No kissing in public! However men and women do shake hands as a greeting.
  6. Photo of a bottle of Tusker Lager

  7. Rural people eat a lot of the local green bananas, and plenty of green vegetables, either fried or boiled. My doctor will be happy.
  8. I should avoid eating meat outside restaurants and the like. However the rural folk might offer a visitor meat and it would be impolite to refuse. What should I do? I must make that decision at the time. Tapeworms FTW!
  9. My travel doctor was right when she told me to drink only bottled water. The locals will offer soft drinks like Coca-Cola and Fanta, which I will accept and drink.
  10. The local beer is the Kenyan Tusker Lager and it’s quite acceptable, if a little heavy for the climate. I’ll be asked whether I want it “hot” or “cold”.
  11. South African wine is available, but relatively expensive. I’ve been advised to avoid the local wine.
  12. When travelling by 4WD, remember to take toilet paper.
  13. In the city, Westerners are likely to be perceived according to the usual stereotypes: Americans are loud and religious, Australians are relaxed and joke a lot, Germans are strict and so on. In rural areas we’re all the same: “You’re all white and you’ve got money.”

And apart from that, it’s just the usual stuff when arriving in a new culture: Listen more than you speak, and show respect.

Care to add any other tips?