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Interpreting a public holiday altercation

It was the morning of a public holiday and we’d gone out for a family walk to buy some bananas from a local stall. People call out to us all the time so we thought nothing of replying pleasantly to the three drunk guys sitting on the new drain constructions as we made our way back home. One of the men followed us as we continued.

First, he zoomed in on me, following me, hassling me for money, standing just a bit too close, and refusing to go away. I felt a bit threatened by his behaviour.

Then he turned his attention to Elliot who was inspecting a rather large muddy puddle. He told Elliot not to go near it and when he didn’t move, broke off a branch from nearby, and raised it as if he were about to hit Elliot with it, all the time shouting at him not to go near the mud. Elliot, of course, starting crying and quickly ran behind Arthur’s legs. At this point, the guy said he was just kidding and offered Elliot the branch to hit him instead. Arthur picked up Elliot and we continued with our still sobbing child. He was fine by the time we reached home.

It was distressing for all of us, so we debriefed when we got home. Here’s some of what we said:

  • People approach us all the time. What was different about this man was how insistent he was.
  • White women are more of a target than either Tanzanian women or white men. We are not sure if this is a sexual thing.
  • I could not see where this guy’s friends were so I wasn’t sure if they were following, but it was clear that Arthur was my husband so I felt a degree of protection from his mere presence. It was probably unnecessary for him to intervene, even though I felt unsafe, and may have inflamed the situation.
  • People often assume that we are incompetent parents, so it’s common for them to tell us what we should or should not be doing with Elliot. In part, this is because we have no problem with things that Tanzanians do not allow, like children getting dirty.
  • A pretend or role play is a common form of a joke here, so it’s likely the guy’s claim that he was just playing with Elliot and not actually serious about hitting him was true.
  • This kind of role play can be difficult to pick up on if you don’t know it as a recognisable social pattern (perhaps similar to how sarcasm functions in the West?) Tricky for adults, it is way beyond a not-even-3 year old.
  • As much as you want to keep your child safe, you can’t protect them from everything or prevent every hard situation, nor is that even necessarily advisable. This is true in any culture, and even more so when you’re living cross-culturally. What you can do is help them to process the big feelings, work out strategies together to cope, and provide safe spaces at home.

Categories: Tanzania Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

3 replies

  1. Interesting. I research lots of cross-cultural family and children stuff, particularly with hygiene, among different ethnic groups in China. Like you, ‘foreigners’ in China let their kids get dirty, which is interpreted as incompetent parenting because they clearly don’t know anything about parasites and the potential of undetected faeces in dirt. Is there any sense of that in Tanzania? One of my research strategies was to go out with my [then] baby and see what people told me off for!

    I also found the cross-cultural aspects of joking with children difficult and I was less able to take this as ‘interesting’ and more likely to be protective and offended. People in China used to pretend to steal the babies, then laugh when they cried and gave them back to their parents. I hated it, but now I look back and wonder what this sort of joking ritual was supposed to do culturally? Test the baby’s attachment? Teach us about keeping hold of our kids? Teach children to ‘ask’ for their parents? A version of peek-a-boo (which child development experts say is about learning that objects you cannot see still exist) whereby children learn that crying loudly gets them returned to their parents? Now I am not in the moment I am better able to consider the other options.

    PS. Maybe the guy had just vomited in that puddle :-)

    1. Wow, your research sounds fascinating! Sounds like a pretty successful research technique too!

      Yes, I think it is to do with hygiene, and my suggestions that a bit of dirt actually help the immune system are met with disbelief.

      They do the joking about taking babies away from mum here too – like, they’ll grab Elliot and say, ‘let’s go this way’ or pretend to walk off with him – but lots of joking in Tanzania is around some kind of idea of lying or stealing.

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