As we continue learning about life in Tanzania, one huge area that we haven’t explored much is ‘the village’. Something like 75% of Tanzanians live in villages. While we are working in an urban context, many students come to university from a village. Additionally, ‘village Tanzania’ seems to contribute significantly to Tanzanian national and self-identity, even for city dwellers, not unlike I guess how ‘the bush’ and ‘the outback’ influences Australians even though most of us live in cities on the coast! Not knowing ‘the village’ feels like quite a large hole in our understanding of Tanzania.
I was reflecting on this as we were driving through the middle of Tanzania recently, because I’m not even sure that as an Australian I have a category for ‘village’. As we drove, we would slow down to 50kmh as we went through a village, sometimes every 5 or 10km. Tanzania is vast, not unlike Australia, but whereas Australia is full of space, the Tanzanian countryside is dotted with villages. I’ve previously commented to a Tanzanian that Dodoma is ‘in the middle of nowhere’, but since realised that this comment probably doesn’t make sense to a Tanzanian, because everywhere is close to a village.
I wonder whether this is something that people from Europe or more densely populated western countries understand better than someone like me? We have country towns in Australia, but they’re much more spaced out, and may be more like ‘regional centres’ for surrounding properties as well as communities in their own right.
As we were driving, I was struck by the differences between the villages we saw. There was different architecture – everything from little mud huts with grass roofs, to brick houses with corrugated iron. Some villages had power; others didn’t. Most had at least one primary school (and soccer pitch!) with some of the larger ones having a shop or two, pub, hospital, police station, a church/mosque, and/or secondary school. One thing that this brought out to me is that experiences probably differ considerably from village to village, and I’m sure, within villages as well. It would be very easy to do a tour of one village and feel like you’ve seen them all, or to hear from one person and generalise from that. And yet the mere range of villages suggests that would be completely superficial.
This is a massive challenge for us. Cities and towns are pretty new in Tanzania. Places like Dodoma and Arusha have exploded only in the last 10 years or so. There’s much work to be done in Tanzania coming to terms with this new context. But I suspect that can’t happen without a sophisticated understanding of how Tanzanians view village life as well. One of the things we encounter from university students is both a great concern for village people in Tanzania, and a desire not to return to live there personally. For many, that comes out of their own experiences, so we’ll be asking lots of questions about what those have been.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.