Ways Tanzanians Are Different Than Americans

A commentary I wrote last week about a controversy at a St. Paul university made it into Wednesday’s Minneapolis Star Tribune. Then it was used as a talking point on Dan Barreiro’s popular radio talk show (about 20 minutes in).

You might assume this the lead-up to a blog post that’s pretty un-African, but actually, me being here is precisely the angle I wrote this piece from: how living in Tanzania allows me to look at controversies (and everything else back home) in a new light. Specific to this case, it’s about how Tanzania has allowed traits—some not so good—of the American people to really stand out now that I’m accompanied by those who in some ways are quite different.

The trait I referred to in this editorial is that people in the U.S. from just about any class, color, or political alliance are extremely reactive and dramatic in response to any real (or even made up) controversy.

This is the first example, of ways I’ll bring up in this article, of how these two cultures differ.


This particular clash between Tanzanians and Americans got me thinking about differences in general. And though a rundown or list of the ways I’ve encountered is always a nice way to go, I instead offer you a story to illustrate two more interesting ways I get to enjoy the company of those unique and the way they make the people back home stand out.

On a recent sunny, Saturday morning in the village while waiting for the bus, I was accompanied with the usual few other townspeople all gathered by the stop at the end of the school driveway. This time, however, I was struck by a man taking out his cell phone and playing music. The music wasn’t atypical—upbeat with pleasant melody and vocals—nor was it strange that he played his music aloud. But for some reason, I thought about how this act would be atypical back in Minneapolis.

Nevermind the diversity of America, that the person playing their music could practically be from anywhere in the world and representing any group. You could be in a homogeneous small town, but the music would likely not sit well with waiting fellows because one fellow rider might like country music, another a fan of hard rock, another Top 40, another gansta rap, and another classical. There’d be no pleasing everyone as there is no universal melodious appeasement in the U.S. That’s why grocers and retailers play muzak. That way, you have some music and no one is angered (though no on is exactly pleased.)

And even beyond homogeneity, if you were at a bus stop where everyone enjoyed the same music, the person playing theirs out loud would still be met with some resistance. “Put some headphones on,” might be the reply (or the thought) from those around as another’s music is distracting. Americans, in general—and certainly to a higher degree than the folks here in Tanzania—just tend to want their space and independence from others.

I’m cut from the American cloth, so noted and with knee-jerk reaction that I didn’t want to listen to this guy’s music at the bus stop for reasons other than musical preference. But beyond the knee-jerk was appreciation for the soundtrack as dawn broke over the distant hills—and more, it was an appreciation for the kind of place where people are close enough to feel freer to share and express and be themselves without the reservations of being in public.

Sometimes, though, the closeness is a wee bit overwhelming. And this brings us to another way this closeness element plays out differently in Tanzania. 

On that very same journey to the city, we had now boarded the bus and snugly fit into place. My computer was dead because my cord fried the day before. So I contented myself with a National Geographic magazine.

I was seated near the front along the aisle. My elbows were pressed up against my sides as I awkwardly paged through the photographs—my left side squished up against the arm rest and the 20-something year old man to my right near and dear. His shoulder pushing mine and his left thigh tight against my right, his presence was made ever more potent by his odor. Deodorant is rare among the people and his man’s musk was wafting. I’m pretty used to that by now, though.

As the bus rolled along, my cozy companion also got in gear. He spoke with others in the bus with unnecessary volume. I put on my headphones to little avail. Then my reading was interrupted by more than just the noise and cramped conditions as he began to gesture with his left arm over my lap, even reaching across my body to others to connect with. For being so eager to connect with others, he sure did a nice job of seeming to pay no heed to the person actually closest to him.

This went on for miles. The smell, the noise, the cram, his reach.

In a little while, he did acknowledge me. He rest his left hand on my right thigh. It wasn’t an aggressively offensive act, but I sure felt it. And the sensation was heightened as his hand moved to cup my kneecap.

I know what you’re thinking (which is even more indicative of American culture and norms.) But this guy’s act wasn’t the least bit sexual. It’s just what guys do sometimes. They even hold hands.

An interesting twist on the heightened masculinity of men here as reported to me by white women as their reason for finding Tanzanian men so attractive. But more on that in a future article.

Though our interaction platonic, there was still some bodily fluid transference from my seat companion to me. The icing on top of this cake of closeness was in the form of spittle from his mouth as five droplets tapped and darkened the open pages of my magazine.

Though this man was a special case by bringing all these sensory elements of closeness together and it happened to be conveniently juxtaposed to the earlier example of closeness of the people here while waiting for the bus, this example also wasn’t anomalous. The man on the bus and the other playing his music before we hopped aboard are indeed two cogs representing the unique continuum of closeness this society functions along.

The point of all this, of course, is not to judge. The point is that each individual or group of individuals is a bag of mixed nuts. Some have more almonds; some have more cashews. And then in response, some of us prefer the almond-heavy, while others stick with the cashew-loaded mix.

May you find the bag of mixed nuts you best belong.



What say you?