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I Lived in Tanzania for a Year: Here’s What I Learned

I lived in Tanzania

I moved to Mwanza, Tanzania for one year to conduct my doctoral thesis research on gender equity, in partnership with a Tanzanian women’s rights organization.

In the time that I lived in Tanzania, I met some of the strongest women I’ve ever encountered. I learned a new language, made new friends and had some pretty amazing experiences in the Serengeti National Park and around Lake Victoria.

I also witnessed and experienced things that deeply disturbed me. I was told stories that angered me. I noticed blatant inequities and disparities. I woke the f*ck up.

I lived in Tanzania for a year. Here’s what I learned.

Time is not universal

Somewhere along the way, I stopped wearing a watch. It became heavy on my wrist, suddenly restrictive. I stashed it in the back of my wardrobe. At the end of my year in Tanzania, my watch emerged, but never regained its lustre.

Time is not a universal concept, though it often feels all-encompassing in North America. Not only with the structure it provides day to day (often pertaining to values of productivity and efficiency in our working lives), but also how it ties us to the past and future.

The present moment is a place I didn’t often visit, but my time in Tanzania enabled me to shift to a space where I could live more mindfully in the present.

In a low-income nation where poverty is striking (the average Tanzanian makes just $1USD per day), people are not as focused on the future when they are trying to secure their basic needs for today. Living in this context, I began to realize the ridiculousness of my internal sense of urgency to get from point A to point B or my insane guilt if I didn’t work hard enough on a particular day. In Tanzania, no one is expecting your immediate response on the other end of an email, there are no judgements on how you managed your day and zero cares about what you accomplished.

When I lived in Tanzania, I learned that the present moment is not just a means to an end or a moment in time serving just to get me to where I’m going. The present moment is all we have. It should be the ultimate goal in and of itself.

Climate change is real

Okay this one might seem obvious, but not everyone is on board with the environmental movement yet. If you don’t believe in climate change, just ask the Tanzanian women in rural areas who must walk farther and farther each day to fetch scarce firewood and water. Deforestation and drought are very real and devastating impacts of climate degradation in Tanzania.

Not only this, but it’s those least affected by climate change who remain the most ignorant to it. Ironically, the research shows those unaffected are also the highest contributors to environmental pollution.

Enter the wealthy minority.

Did you know that high-income countries are within a global minority? Low and middle-income countries are actually the majority, meaning they constitute a bigger percentage of the global population. Yet, this majority of humans are paying the price for the actions of a small, wealthy minority. (While this resource is a little on the older side, it does a good job summarizing how minorities are more vulnerable to climate change).

It largely comes down to an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, where most folks from North American and Europe don’t care because quite simply, it doesn’t impact us…yet. But it will, or if not us, our children and our children’s children.

For the good of our fellow humans, our planet and all of its species, let’s all do a big, collective opening of our eyes.

Women are already empowered

‘Women’s empowerment’ is a hot topic and development initiatives targeting females in low-income nations, such as Tanzania, have been extremely common for decades, since the UN’s Millennium Development Declaration in 2000.

Except there’s one problem: the entire concept of empowerment contains an underlying assumption that one human being can empower another.

Can we really give someone else power? This would require it to be a tangible entity.

If we can transfer power to someone less powerful than us, then what does this say about where we position ourselves in relation to those we are seeking to help?

An even bigger problem with initiatives that seek to empower women, is the implicit notion that women are disempowered to begin with. Yet most of the Tanzanian women I met were strong, resourceful and fiercely protective of their families, often doing whatever it took to provide their children with their basic needs. Regardless of level of education or personal circumstances, they found employment or started their own business.

If this drive and determination isn’t intrinsic power, what is? Women are already empowering themselves and one another. They don’t need foreigners to come in and save them.

Tourists can be entitled (see #5 and #6)

I can’t tell you how many times in the past year I witnessed problematic behaviour from tourists, who seemingly forget they are VISITORS to another country.

Would you be demanding, authoritative, dismissive, discriminatory, exploitative (the list goes on) during a visit to a new acquaintance’s home for tea?

No. Let’s be real, you would be on your best behavior. So why the attitude of superiority while you are visiting someone else’s country? It’s appalling.

Occasionally tourists are not aware of certain cultural norms or customs and may behave inappropriately. However, I noticed a disturbing trend from expatriates who DO know better, but choose otherwise…like the Italian Bed and Breakfast owner who made his Tanzanian staff learn Italian to speak with him (rather than him learn the national language of the country he relocated to), the German manager of a Tanzanian resort pocketing his staff’s tips and the array of people complaining about local culture instead of embracing a new way or life or facing up to the issue being entirely one of their own.

Anglophones are linguistically challenged

Growing up in North America, I didn’t “need” to learn a second language. While my home country Canada is bilingual, I lived in a predominantly English area where French was not widely spoken, so I was virtually never in situations where I needed to use it.

Some of my first experiences traveling as a young person were trips through the USA and UK, both where I was not pushed outside of my Anglophonic bubble.

Once I finally hit Europe, and eventually Asia and Africa, I realized just how important language and the ability to communicate in another dialect is. Language after all, literally embodies history and culture. It demonstrates respect and builds rapport.

Travel and living abroad were the slap across the face I needed to realize I was actually part of a minority which could only speak one language.

It wasn’t that I expected people to speak to me in English (I always tried to learn some phrases in the local language where ever I went). But ultimately, before the days of google translate, I still needed those around me to engage in English because quite frankly, I couldn’t manage without it.

I began to cringe at the entitlement (and subsequent embarrassment) of traveling as an Anglophone.

When I lived in Tanzania, I really gave it my best effort to learn Swahili. I used Rosetta Stone and also hired a local tutor and realized just how hard it is to learn a new language.

Read next: Rosetta Stone Review

I experienced fatigue and headaches as my brain literally stretched and evolved, creating new neuronal synapses. I observed that those whose first language is English, actually tended to struggle the most in learning Swahili; my friends from Italy and Lebanon were fluent in the time it took me to learn the basics.

Learning a new language is humbling and frustrating and rewarding. It knocks you down a couple pegs, making you aware of your ego as you make mistakes time and time again (case in point: I once tried to say ‘I am helping myself’ but accidentally said ‘I need to take a shit’….the difference of ONE LETTER).

Once you surrender your ego and stop caring about whether you make a fool of yourself (even if you do accidentally tell people about your bathroom needs), fluency awaits. Learning a new language has been one of the most gratifying challenges I have ever taken on, and I will continue to learn new languages for the rest of my days.

There is nothing post about post-Colonialism

Tanzania was colonized. Oppressed, controlled, abused. If you are not familiar with what colonization is, I challenge you to educate yourself further, especially before traveling to Africa.

For now, I have included a definition here: colonization is a process whereby a foreign settler population arrives to a “new land” to establish a colony, and over time, expropriates and suppresses the Indigenous peoples of that land.

Tanzania today has become an independent and United Republic, but that doesn’t mean colonization is entirely in the past. Colonial ideology and its agendas still live on.

Just look at the typical ‘safari outfit’ tourists wear in the Serengeti (I don’t think I need to include a photo; anyone who has been to Africa knows what I’m talking about). This “explorer” outfit, complete with khaki or green garb and the wide brimmed hat, has somehow become indicative of what to wear on safari.

Yet, by wearing these clothes you are actually reiterating colonial ideology, essentially copying what was first worn by the colonizers who “explored” and conquered much of Africa. The wide brimmed hat is the direct descendant of the pith helmet, a symbol of colonial rule across the continent. Don’t be a Melania Trump.

The problem is much more than clothes though.

Wealthy foreign countries are still exploiting Tanzania for its minerals and natural resources, foreign organizations are still controlling access to financial aid and services in the development sectors, and English (while not a national language) is still dominant based on the ‘power’ it grants those who can speak it.

More recently, Tanzania (and other African nations) are provided gigantic loans or ‘grants’ by foreign countries towards infrastructural advancements. Roads, bridges, high-speed trains and skyscraper buildings are cropping up quickly, which on the surface sounds great, but at what cost?

Take Home Notes

If English is your first language, if you are from a high-income country, if you are white, able-bodied, straight, educated, male, if you are able to travel, and especially if you are ALL of these combined, realize you are privileged as F.

You were dealt a Royal flush in the card game of life.

It is uncomfortable at first to realize that you have never “seen” what’s been in front of you all along. But we can’t disrupt and dismantle racism, classism, sexism, hegemony, colonialism (the list goes on) without this pivotal piece of acknowledgement.

Acknowledgement means that we, the privileged folks, have been implicit. Just because we didn’t do something directly, does not mean our hands are clean…because from the other side of the coin, we did just that: nothing.

P.s. I was hesitant to write content like this due to fear that it would come across too academic, or too serious. Truthfully, it would be a huge disservice to my research participants and the Tanzanian community I lived in to not speak up and use my platform to raise awareness of these issues. Ultimately, feel free to take my opinions and perspectives with a grain of salt, as they are just that: my opinions. I do welcome yours in the comments below, so drop a message to let me know what you thought!

P.p.s. I absolutely adore Tanzania and have many travel resources to help you plan your best trip (responsibly). If you are considering traveling to Tanzania, please refer to my Tanzanian content for more information.

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I lived in Tanzania: here's what I learned

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Avith Fulgence said:
I enjoyed reading it. Am a Tanzanian and what you have said are true.
January 26, 2024 at 3:42 am
Dortha Briddick said:
What a wonderful post you have written, thanks for sharing!
July 11, 2020 at 8:44 pm
Debbie said:
Thank you for your article; it is so on target. I am making a livelong dream trip to Kenya/Tanzania 2020, however, I have also been nervous about feeding the fire of tourism. My desire to go to Kenya and Tanzania is first and foremost, to experience their way of life and not impose my ways upon the host people. One of the items you addressed that is of great concern to me is to not be a bad tourist and how to be very sensitive to the history of colonialism and not be disrespectful. I especially like your comments of empowerment - as you indicated, I have no power to give to someone else, I can only hope to learn from someone else. Thank you for the post.
October 25, 2019 at 10:11 pm
Murshid said:
Hi Steph, this article clear states what exactly is going on in third world countries, neo-colonaization still persisting inform of foreign aid and all that. You pointing out all this to educate people especially those who havent gotten to travel to that part of the world is truely amazing, thank you for that.
July 31, 2019 at 12:21 pm
Brenda Goodchild said:
Hi steph, I have enjoyed reading your comments about your tanzanian experience and I am pleased you have used your platform to discuss colonization in Tanzania which is still happening today. Thus Tanzania struggling with low income and infrastructure. I was wondering if you have thoughts on the current government and there efforts to eradicate corruption??? There efforts to get NGO to had power back to tanzanians??? Thanks again for another informative post and I have enjoyed your detailed experience and observations from your year here in Tanzania. Keep it up!!! Asante dada x
June 25, 2019 at 1:42 pm
Sue Kelly said:
hi steph! hope you're well wherever this message finds you on this globe. yes, totally agree with your questioning of "empowerment" and help. these notions often make many assumptions about how things should look and that the is needed in the first place. As you point out learning and help is truly bi-directional!! Safari njema, Dada!
June 24, 2019 at 7:54 am
Hazel McDonald said:
I could not be prouder of you than I am now. Thank you for your sensitivity and courage to say and speak up like you have. You echo your honest observations and experiences, and truth. Although not as well travelled, you also echo my own and I agree with you about empowerment, climate changes, growing up mostly unilingual, colonization, priviledge and the many fine points articulated so well. So much attitude in international assistance and "mission" is mislead although well intended. I liked what you had to say. I learned a lot the hard way and it was very humbling. Well done Stephanie Thank you from a kindred heartbeat.
June 24, 2019 at 6:44 am
André Castro said:
Really liked it, thanks for taking the time to put some deep thoughts on the “paper”. Makes me think about how “International Development” works (and should work, if at all) and how twisted it is to reflect Western standards. Do the people that are often “helped” need this help, will it improve their lot, will it make them just another piece of the clog that will speed up the machine? Also your privilege checklist is spot on, I‘m really glad you did it yourself and it reminds me I should do it more often. Happy travels and keep blogging, rock on! I hope to meet you some day in our world wandering trajectories :)
June 23, 2019 at 7:33 am
Steph G said:
I'm so glad you shared this. The language learning is so hard. We just got to Vietnam and are so overwhelmed not knowing anything and not being able to read any signs. Even the translate app isn't helping and it reminds me that as lucky as we are to speak English, it's ridiculous that we didn't learn another language growing up.
June 23, 2019 at 2:42 am
Brittany said:
Wow what a life changing experience you’ve had, Steph! I find the bit about putting away your watch and being in the present moment so inspiring! Definitely working to embrace some of this approach in my own life and I look forward to hearing how you are able to adapt it if/when you return to North America! Sending you a big hug and hope to see you soon!
June 22, 2019 at 9:30 am
Janis said:
Amazing blog post Steph! Very insightful. Not many could immerse themselves in Tanzanian life the way you did. Congratulations on completing your research.
June 22, 2019 at 8:03 am