We don’t really have Tanzanian friends. There, I said it. One of the most common questions we get asked by our Australian friends is whether we are making friends here in Tanzania. The answer is ‘no’. We’ve been here for 15 months and we don’t feel like we have friends.
There are Tanzanian people we know and interact with in everyday life (like our house-help and our neighbors) and we have a Tanzanian boss. We have Tanzanian mentors whom we have sought out and asked to advise and teach us. Obviously we have a fair bit to do with Tanzanian students as well! But I wouldn’t say these people are our friends.
Now, perhaps that’s my western ideas of friendship creeping in, based on emotional support, ‘hanging out’, shared interests, and activity that isn’t related to family structures. It could be that I have what Tanzanians would call ‘friends’ but that I don’t recognize it. Maybe.
The question from Australians is fair enough. During our pre-departure deputation and during our early days here, one of the things we talked about was not getting caught up in relating only to expats. We have said no to activities with other expats because we didn’t want our ‘work’ time to be with Tanzanians and our ‘leisure’ time to be with expats. We wanted to integrate more than that. But it hasn’t happened. Sure, we have an abundance of Tanzanian people who want us to be their benefactors, but we don’t feel we’re a part of Tanzanians’ lives. I can count on one hand people with whom we feel a mutual connection, but they all live in other places in Tanzania, not in Dodoma.
Now, perhaps 15 months is too early. Good friendships take time in any culture, even more so when you’re used to seeing people come and go, as many Tanzanians are used to seeing white people do. I was wondering aloud to one of my mentors the other day whether Tanzanians already have their family and friendship structures and to include others from a different culture is an imposition. He saw things differently.
He told me that many Tanzanians have no idea how to relate to white people as friends. Coming to a white person’s home may be quite a nerve-wracking experience. A Tanzanian may worry, what customs will they not know? Will they look stupid, or give offense? I know these feelings – it’s how I feel at the thought of visiting Tanzanians. The customs around welcoming are different to our culture so it’s hard to know how to welcome someone in our home, and vice versa.
One of those Tanzanians I mentioned above, with whom we feel we could possibly have a good friendship, invited us to stay with him and his family if we are in his town again – if that was something we felt comfortable with us. To us, it sounded wonderful, but his perception was that missionaries like to hold themselves separate from Tanzanians and prefer not to stay with them. Certainly many expats feel they need to have a ‘retreat’ away from all the cross-cultural stuff and to stay somewhere else or with another expat.
So there are barriers going several ways in friendship with Tanzanians. There are things like distance and the kind of work we do; there’s our reticence to impose; there is Tanzanian bashfulness, and there’s their experience of what other expats have wanted to do.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.