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Rethinking my concept of friendship

I’ve been thinking about friendship recently. Almost eight months in, our Australian friends are starting to ask us if we’ve got local friends in Dodoma. Our September supporters’ letter says, ‘We certainly have people we know and talk to on a daily basis — but that’s not necessarily the same as friendship!’

One mentor who lived in Tanzania for a number of years has a theory that ‘friendship’ (as we think of it) doesn’t really exist in Tanzania, especially for women, because relationships exist upon family lines. She believes it’s difficult for expats or missionaries to make friends in Tanzania because they do not fit into these local structures.

I’ve been reading Mary Lederleitner’s Cross Cultural Partnerships which is all about how money works cross-culturally. She suggests that in the west, our friendships are able to be primarily emotional because we have all kinds of financial support mechanisms in place due to our higher standard of living. While we may make a meal for a friend in need, we are far less economically dependent on our friends. We probably do not see friendship as at home in the economic sphere. We may even see it as manipulative to invoke friendship for economic gain. However, this is not how money and relationships are understood by the majority of people in the world.

Here’s an example. When we go the market, we are called ‘rafiki’ (friend) not just by people we know but by people we don’t know. This doesn’t particularly bother me, but I certainly don’t read it as as a sign of actual, genuine friendship — they don’t even know my name! I’m more likely to read it as someone trying to ingratiate themself to the rich westerner in order to get some business. But here’s the thing: in a worldview that doesn’t separate the emotional from the economic, ‘friend’ may be an appropriate term to use in this context. ‘Friend’ may even be a term more akin to ‘sponsor’ or ‘benefactor’.

Three things about how this plays out in the university context

The question of what friendship is becomes more complicated in the university context where yet another sub-culture exists. Students live together away from their traditional support structures, presumably forming new relationships that may not run along familial or tribal lines, and so their ‘friendships’ may also exist outside these structures.

Additionally, many university students are part of Tanzania’s growing middle class, and the greater personal wealth a person has, the more able they are to cultivate relationships solely for emotional ends — in other words, a relationship I might be more likely to recognise as ‘friendship’.

However, having a university education brings obligations as well. In a more collectivist culture like Tanzania, personal wealth may be understood to be there to help others in the relational network. For example, a whole family or even village might contribute to sending one person to get a higher education on the understanding that when the student gets a well-paid job, the income will also be shared.

For Tanzanian university students, the new and the old are in competition with each other. While some students experience disconnection at university, we’ve also met students who feel more connected to their new friends who share their experiences of the university context, than people from their village.  For some, the individualistic context is isolating; others feel frustrated at the demands of a collectivist culture.

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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