[above: (picture on left) Young Whan, Bibi and Babu of Valerie, sophy (picture on right) Valerie, Bibi, Babu, cousin, sophy, cousins in the front]
Tanzanians have a wonderfully welcoming culture. You don’t necessarily experience it as a tourist – Tanzanian tourist culture is an entirely different beast. You really have to be living or working within communities that are outside of tourist areas to get that Tanzanian warmth.
Probably in part because we are the token lighter-skinned foreigners, we frequently get invited to peoples’ homes. “You must come visit my homestead,” women will often whisper into my ear. There is no date set, no time set. Somehow, it magically happens, usually at the last minute, and I end up sitting in someone’s living room as their guest.
First, there are the innumerable and respectful greetings (see the previous entry on Kiswahilish). “Shikamoo marahaba jambo sijambo mambo poa safi habari ya nyumbani salama nzuri mchananjema na wewe pia.” Valerie’s grandfather, who has served in the Tanzanian military, and was part of the battle to remove Idi Amin from power in Uganda, was as gracious as always and chatted with us in Kiswahilish about world politics and Barack Obama. “McCain is really too old!” he said repeatedly.
There is always food involved. At Valerie’s house, I had yet another delicious traditional meal with ugali wa mahindi (fluffly light maize mush) na kabichi (cabbage) na supu ya nyama (a beef stew, of which I just took the surrounding potatoes and stew and left the beef). Sundays and Fridays are meat nights at Valerie’s house, and they had leftover beef stew from the day before which they saved for us for lunch.
At Jesca’s spacious and well-appointed home, we had one of my favorite meals: dagaa na ugali wa mahogo na mahindi mix (small lake anchovies with cassava and maize mush). At Editha Kwezi’s home, we had pilau na kachimbari na supu ya kuku (spiced rice with spicy tomato and onion salad and chicken stew). All was delicious.
It’s infinitely better than the pseudo-westerner food we eat at hotel restaurants.
There are, of course, many awkward moments of miscommunication and silence that come with speaking different primary languages. There’s also the gospel video phenomenon, such as at Dr. Kwezi’s home: videos of Tanzanian gospel choirs singing and clapping and dancing about how the fires of hell will burn all the traditionalist heathens unless they convert. There was even one video of the Shingyanga choir that included depictions of heathen Chinese people flailing about with fake kung fu moves. They were followed by the flames of hell.
Sometimes people pick up the fact that I take a moment of silence before I eat. “Are you praying?” they ask. “Ndiyo, yes,” I reply. A few people have asked me if I am Christian. “I am Buddhist,” I’ll reply. This is met with a longer period of silence. Perhaps they are contemplating what it means to have a heathen doctor in their home. (Heathen doctor – does this make me a witch?) Still, people remain respectful to me. And I definitely don’t volunteer any religious commentary in homes playing the gospel videos.
Religion plays a critical role in bringing communities together, though unfortunately at times with overtones of hate. But when hope is one of the few things people have, it is important to protect it.