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A lesson about not explaining myself

Going into town for us is a matter of negotiating cars, 4WDs, carts, bikes, motorbikes and pedestrians where there are no traffic lights, zebra crossings are nominal and there aren’t really any footpaths. You can’t use a stroller and Elliot won’t tolerate being on my back anymore so there have been several times where I’ve been strongly told off because people are worried Elliot’s going to get run over.

Sometimes people just good-naturedly pick him up but yesterday I got told off. And this is where I made a cultural faux pas. An older guy told me off and I tried to explain to him about how Elliot likes to walk around and is independent and I was keeping an eye on him. When I say that kind of thing to other women, it often opens up a conversation. But this was a man. And an older one. On two fronts, I should have recognised my inferior status and just taken his advice without explaining. I should have said, ‘Asante Baba’ over and over while he told me off.

It is so hard for my egalitarian brain to see both the gender and the age factor here. After all, it’s my child – don’t you think I’d know more about him than the stranger on the street? But I’m ordering this interaction according to merit, not according to status. In my head, a child’s mother knows what’s best; in his head, older people know what’s best.

To add to this, another expat gave me his observation that it’s quite hard to get information out of Tanzanians, everything from directions to cultural explanations. Now, this has not been my experience! I am constantly being offered advice, although he thinks perhaps this is because I am viewed as a ‘mother’ rather than as a ‘white person’. (Apparently no matter what culture you’re in, it’s acceptable to criticise mothers!) But anyway, he reckons that information is currency, something that elders have, so if you give it away, you’re giving away something of your status. So when someone does give you advice, it’s a massive condescension on their part. All the more reason to take advice humbly, even if it’s being shouted at me by an old man.

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

1 reply

  1. Thanks Tamie for this reminder, and for the idea about information as currency. I have a similar but almost opposite problem. I am older, with grey hair, and need to remember to accept graciously being deferred to and respected – It is NOT ok for me to ask to be called by my first name – It’s not cos I’m white but because I am older. It’s a fine line to walk, especially since I am also female so must defer to younger males, but still recieve the respectful address due to an older woman.

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