I saw two people that I have met before at lunch today. We tried a new place in town for lunch, and upon arrival we passed a gentleman who looked up from his food and greeted his “Canadian friends from London.” Nuri and I met Oscar while waiting for our burgers at a food truck close to our place, and found unexpected common ground: Oscar works at Fort Mac and is home in Mwanza visiting for the time being. We were able to chat with Oscar a little before bunkering down with our food at a table that seated four, a chair for each of us and none for anyone else.
Noting the number of chairs at our table may seem like an odd thing to do. However, in hindsight, it’s a very potent symbol of the cultural differences that I am becoming more and more aware of.
Samira’s still away visiting family so it’s Nuri, Iris, Steph, and me at the hostel right now. Both Maimuna and Bernard are out of town and the SAUT students that Iris is working with are in the midst of exams right now, so nobody had anywhere to be today. I wanted my room cleaned (side note: I’m being spoiled in Mwanza because I get my room regularly cleaned, it’s wonderful), so Nuri and I went to the churchyard behind the hostel and climbed the steps to the roof of one of the buildings for some peace and quiet to work in. Iris and Steph stayed in their rooms, where they could listen to the noise of the hostel staff moving things around and the various conference guests milling around. Unbeknownst to us, the staff were moving beds around. Into rooms that already had beds in them. Into our rooms, for instance. By noon, we were all hangry and there was a spectrum of annoyance amongst the four of us.
Flash forward to us walking into the restaurant. We scoped out the buffet (yes, a buffet!) and then dropped our backpacks at our table of choice. I exchanged pleasantries with Oscar before hightailing it to the buffet for some food. We spoke again when Oscar and his friend were on their way out, chatting about how long we’re staying in Mwanza and how things have been. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if we should’ve sat at the table they were at, a table that had more than enough seats for us. I wonder if we should’ve invited him and his friend to sit with us. That would’ve been the kind thing to do, and also the more social, relational thing to do.
After we had been eating for a bit, a man that Steph and I had met last week walked in and sat down across the room from us. When we met him, he had sat down at our table in the small restaurant we were eating at and had conversed with us until he had to leave. We’ve discovered that this is just something that happens, people sit at your table and strike up a conversation. We’re pretty used to this happening by now. This particular gentleman explained to us what kind of work he did (I couldn’t hear him well, Steph gave me the gist of it afterwards), and that we could work for his company and gain a commission. He proceeded to ask what we were doing that weekend; we were busy. I’ve discovered that the men in Tanzania are more forward than what I’m used to, but have also found that the culture is overall more relational and open. It’s perfectly normal for people to sit down with us and start talking, or even to offer to share their food with us (we always decline graciously). Once this man had sat down near us today, Steph looked straight at me and we agreed to not make eye contact with this guy and avoid any conversation or engagement. Luckily, we made it through lunch without him approaching us.
I’m an introverted, awkward human being. I tend to avoid people that I know even in London, Ontario, when I encounter them in public and out of context. Sometimes I’m just not in the mood to talk to people, or have no idea what I would say to that particular person that hasn’t seen me yet on the bus and therefore choose to dodge the encounter entirely. I’m not necessarily proud of it, but it’s a truth nonetheless. That being said, I’ve talked to the other girls about this and have concluded that it’s not just that. We’re not used to constant interaction and the lack of social boundaries Mwanzans have.
North American culture is by definition individualistic. The social climate that I was brought up in values individualism, productivity, timeliness, rational thinking, and calculated interaction. While personally I feel that this way of thinking has led to heightened anxiety and isolation in our “efficient,” “developed,” “industrialized” society, I am still through and through a product of my North American culture. I like getting things done, I like being able to do things by myself, and if I don’t have to interact with anyone on a personal level from time to time, I honestly don’t mind. Likewise, I generally enjoy predictability and routine, something I have realized more than ever during my time in Mwanza.
Tanzanian culture, on the other hand, values collaboration and relationships, and while those I encounter in Mwanza work hard and are generally incredibly resourceful, efficiency is not something that’s on the table for most. This brand of thinking leads to flexible schedules, slower-paced lifestyles, less productivity, and by and large happier, more confident people. It should be noted that the bulk of Mwanza’s economy dwells in the informal sector, which only supports so much productivity and development in the short-term. Instead of people competing for jobs and walking down the street day after day without talking to anyone, my experience supports an image of people talking to whomever they pass, of taxi drivers, for instance, on any given corner sitting and chatting, stopping only to say hello to us and ask us how we are. My experiences are by no means pure or untainted: as a mzungu who is visibly different my experiences differ from those of locals, and as an outsider I am obviously biased based on my own different experiences and upbringing.
I talk to locals about this, though, and they agree that Tanzanian culture is based on hospitality and collaboration. Lydia, the woman who has been conducting interviews for me, shared with me an experience she had a couple of weeks ago. She went to a village to hold a baseline survey on HIV in mining communities, and before anyone would cooperate with the interviews her and her companions had to share a meal with them. It wasn’t a question of whether they wanted the food or not, or if they had time to sit and eat and talk. It was just something that had to happen before the survey began. Lydia told us that in Tanzanian culture, you could go anywhere unannounced and expect to be hosted in someone’s house.
She also said that this is now beginning to change. Which makes me sad. Not that I want to share a meal that I’m eating with anyone that decides to sit down with me. I was even a smidge upset that the hostel staff put an extra bed in my room without first telling me that they would be doing so. Looking back, it probably didn’t occur to anyone that something like that could upset me. Also looking back, I suppose it shouldn’t upset me.
This tension is what I’m walking on these days, tension pulled taut like a tightrope. One the one side, I love Tanzanian culture and how relational and open and loving they are. I love that I can walk past an older lady, say “Shikamoo” to her, and have her smile back and ask me how I am. I love that the climate isn’t based on efficiency and blind individualism. But it’s so exhausting sometimes. I’m not used to constant interaction, and find myself frustrated that I keep missing the mark on cultural norms and consequently come off as a rude, arrogant foreigner when in reality I’m tired and am still figuring out what’s expected of me in a society that is much more community-oriented than my own.
My sincere hope is that I take a lot of my learned values back to Canada and can hold onto them amidst the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life in an industrialized, isolated society. Values such as collaboration, acceptance and openness, and putting people before tasks. I mean to integrate these ideas into my own personal philosophy in the way that I see it here in Mwanza, where I have come to realize that I don’t value these things as much as I should. I’ll bring these tensions home with me, and try to live in light of the juxtapositions that I am left with: collaborative individualism (i.e. I am capable, but better with others), flexible efficiency (i.e. grace-filled deadlines), and people-oriented scheduling, which is more of an oxymoron than one would think considering real, genuine interaction never truly fits into the time slots that my day planner so conveniently makes for me.
I will never fully understand the norms and social mores of this culture, and will probably continue to do things that mark me as a hyper-efficient, empty Westerner during my last few weeks in Mwanza. I’ve come to terms with that. I just hope that I don’t forget everything that has been impressed on me during my short time here. There will be a lot of tensions to work through when I find myself in London, Ontario once again, reintegrated into a life that will keep racing on if you don’t make a conscious decision to do something different, even if it is just slightly different.