The other thing that really hit me, that first few hours in Dar es Salaam, was the lack of convenience.
As soon as we left the airport, we needed cash, but the ATM didn’t work for me. I felt stranded. We soon discovered a second ATM that did work — but that initial feeling of helplessness reemerged a number of times during those first couple of days. There are no servo supermarkets and no all-hours shopping. There is no convenience.
Now this is not to say that items are simply unavailable in Tanzania! It’s just that buying is more than a transaction.
Like so many things in crossing cultures, as we are discovering, this ‘lack’ of convenience, like the chaos, is two-sided. In Tanzania, a purchase actually involves a human relationship, a real conversation with a real person. Buying is about knowing another person, about who you know and who you can talk to. We saw this when Elspeth took us shopping in central Dodoma, meeting people who were friends more than retailers. This is not to romanticise shopping in Tanzania but to point out the other side of the coin. In Australia, I can swipe my credit card with scarcely a hello — antisocial perhaps, but nonetheless possible. In Tanzania, people matter in a way that seems increasingly foreign to my homeland.
One thing really seemed to highlight this difference. Tanzanians love mobile phones! It seems strange at first: along simple brown waysides everywhere, mobile phone advertising makes a fluorescent leap into view. Even the smallest villages feature a hut or stall brightly decked out in Zain pink, Zantel green, or Tigo blue. (The lonely Vodacom ads above are from the University of Dodoma, and if you zoom in on the photo below, you can spot signage for three of the companies.) And phones are not hard to come by; a sim card seems to cost less than a loaf of bread! Many people own two or three phones for multiple networks and better coverage. Yet for all this phone mania, Tanzanians seem disinterested in the ‘connectivity’ and convenience that we have come to crave in Australia. Instead, mobile phones are everywhere because of the way people value other people. Both countries have ‘communications technology’ — but Australians focus on the technology while Tanzanians focus on the communication.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.