For even the most leisurely traveller, researching the particular cultural norms of a country should be a must before they go. Not only does at least making the effort to respect their customs show respect to the people, but it is the only way to truly understand a culture. Although early Tanzania had its roots in German and British colonization, they still have an ancient culture that is all their own. Visitors will see the gratitude at the extra effort on the faces of every taxi driver, tour guide, and merchant they meet along the way.
Providing that visitors aren't in Tanzania on business, how they dress will not be much of an issue. It is worth noting that even the poorest in Tanzania will try their best to dress well as a well-dressed person is much more respected in their culture. Due to the 50% Muslim population in Tanzania, particularly in the Zanzibar archipelago, women and men may find it better to dress more conservatively, with women also donning a head dress. However, while not well liked, a tourist with a little bare skin showing is tolerated.
Depending on age, relationship and status, greetings in Tanzania can be a complicated affair. However, most westerners can get away with a simple hello and a handshake. Visitors who offer out their hand first, should always use the right hand. Right hands are used for eating while left hands are more associated with toilet activities. If in a room full of people, be sure to say hello or at least acknowledge everyone. Greeting one person and ignoring the rest is considered impolite. In some more isolated tribes, greeting an older person is often followed by a bow; however, most visitors that head to these tribes will be filled in first on local customs by a guide.
It is instilled within Tanzanian children at an early age that they must always wash their hands before meals. Therefore, even as adults, people will not start eating until their hands are washed. In small, traditional homes, visitors will be offered a bowl to wash up in while visitors will want to visit the restroom in restaurants. While knives, spoons and forks are present in restaurants there are some dishes that still merit using the fingers. Always reach for food, especially on a communal plate, with the right hand if possible. When eating as a guest in someone's house, don't be surprised when males and females separate to eat in different rooms even though they are related. As an extra note, smelling food is considered rude to the cook as is passing up food. Even if you are not hungry, try to eat a little bit of every dish.
Tanzanians are a warm, friendly people who occasionally welcome visitors with enormous acts of kindness that would take people aback in their home countries. However, these sort of acts should also be met with a certain degree of caution. Tanzania is a place where one person working might support a dozen other people who are not and some can occasionally lead to acts of desperation. If invited to go eat at their home and it seems suspicious, be on the safe side and refuse. To end the conversation politely, promise to come eat another time.
It is common to bargain in shops and marketplaces, but not proper supermarkets. Unfortunately, it is also a common occurrence for shopkeepers to jack up the prices when they deal with a foreigner just because foreigners won't know any better. It is best to go shopping with a local friend, or at least not push too hard when bargaining the price back down.
It is not uncommon to be touched by a member of the same sex a number of times throughout a conversation. Long handshakes, pats on the shoulder or touches on the arm are just how Tanzanians communicate during a conversation. Strangely enough though, prolonged eye contact is considered an invasion of privacy, but speakers will still look in the general direction of the face.
For those travelling to Tanzania with a lover, public displays of affection are disapproved of. While visitors may spot people of the same gender walking down the street holding hands, this is just a sign of friendship, it is still frowned upon for members of different genders. Keep the quick smooches, hand holding and long hugs to a private space. It is also worth noting for members of the LBGT community that homosexuality is both taboo and illegal in the country.
Respect for Elders
For travellers that happen to be older, expect a grandiose amount of respect to be showed your way. Tour guides will be extra gracious and merchants may not even raise the price on you when you stop to browse at their stalls. The older folks will always get an inordinate amount of respect due to age being associated with a wealth of knowledge.
Get real familiar with being referred to as a mzungu, or "person who walks in circles." Nicer translations also refer to the word meaning "explorer" or "restless," but it is almost always reserved for visitors from the west. Abandon any irritation with the label early.
Have you been to Tanzania? How did you prepare?
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