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Tanzanian women: a hunch about emotional life

My second hunch about Tanzanian women is a bit more complicated than the first, and a lot more speculative.

Theory Two: women’s progress in Tanzania is hampered because their emotional expression is limited.

Tanzanian society in general is hierarchical. Those at the top have the power and those at the bottom are expected to knuckle under. There is very little space for those underneath (women, youth, etc) to have an opinion or to express their wishes and emotions.

That means that people don’t learn skills of emotional literacy when they’re young and they may never have the chance to(e.g. how to identify and name excitement, or the difference between frustration and anger). Westerners are often bewildered at the outbursts from African leaders; I wonder whether this is because they never learn to manage your emotions as they move up the hierarchy, so they’re uncontrolled when they finally do get to the top. We grow and expand where we put our time and energy. In a hierarchical culture lots of energy is put into suppression of emotions.

What does this mean for women? If you have trouble identifying your emotions, you may not recognise when something is being done to you that you don’t like. Or if you do see it, you may not have any language to say that you don’t like it. Even if you have the language, cultural expectations may keep you from saying anything. How can consent exist in such an environment?

An anecdotal statistic I heard was that 90% of Tanzanian female university students have experienced sexual abuse. That’s unsurprising, given what we’ve just seen about consent. When you’ve got such trauma is so many women, and at a generational level, is it any wonder that women’s progress is limited? They need more than micro-finance or freedom from abusive men. There’s big stuff there to deal with to do with identity and self-esteem.

Sexual abuse shatters a sense of worth. That’s bad enough in one person, but when it’s been generational, who is to teach younger women of their value when older women can’t see their own? Where are the models of women who confidently live that out?

I will never forget when I was on a panel on dating and sexual ethics at a Christian event for female university students and I said that if you had been abused God hates that, because you are the image of God which gives you both inherent dignity and means that if someone is hurting you they are fundamentally wronging and insulting God. This was a radical statement to make.

However, there are all kinds of other factors that play into this discussion of emotional life.

  • I’ve mentioned consent: to what extent does that seem indispensable to me because of my western individualistic worldview?
  • I’ve said that women’s emotional life is severely underdeveloped: this does not account for their extraordinary capacity for compassion, nor their shared sense of injustice about their lives.
  • It’s also possible that women share emotional life among themselves. That’s not something I’ve observed much thus far, as other components seem to be more prominent glue for friendship than emotional connection e.g. financial help, situational observation, working together on a common project, etc. But perhaps this is still a part of Tanzanian life I haven’t yet been let into.
  • Perhaps also this observation is skewed by the immaturity of university students.


Categories: Tanzania Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

7 replies

  1. Could it be possible that westerners’ emotion expression is similarly hampered, we just hide it through, for example, funding studies/quoting statistics/writing papers about an issue we’ve furious about/been hurt by? Rather than learning emotional literacy, perhaps we what we learn is to suppress emotions until we’re drunk (suggested in our high rates of alcohol-related violence), or at a musical festival/club/some other situation which gives us an outlet. I suspect we suppress our emotions from early on in order not to appear “irrational”, and they come out in an “uncontrolled” way, not when we reach the top of the hierarchy, but when we are in semi-permissible places for emotional expression.

    1. p.s. Have you read Charles Taylor’s account in “A Secular Age” of the role of carnival in the pre-‘secular’ West? I think it’s approx pages 45-54.

  2. Hey Tamie,

    I’m curious, but a bit sceptical I have to admit! ;) (And I know you said it is speculative).

    I know very little about Tanzania at all, so I can’t comment from that perspective, but I wonder if some of it is too much of a generalisation and if our concepts of ’emotional literacy’ are very much based in western worldviews. From what I understand emotions can be quite culture and language-specific. I remember reading bits of a fascinating book about language and emotion during one of my undergrad linguistics course, by anthropological linguist Anna Wierzbicka ‘Emotions across language and cultures: Diversity and Universals’. I can’t remember heaps of it, but thought you might be interested: (or an except as a PDF:

    She discusses a range of different emotions, including frustration and argues that ‘frustration is a highly culture-specific concept, very characteristic of modern Anglo culture, with its emphasis on goals, plans and expected achievements. In other languages, the concept of ‘frustration’ exists only as a relatively recent loan word from English … and as such it has been spreading.’ (p.72)

    She also has some really interesting discussion of the English word ’emotional’, and the fact that a number of other languages (French, German, Russian) don’t have an analogous word (p.18, 19)

    I wonder too if it’s more about cultural expectations for certain people–perhaps particularly women–not to express emotions (rather than having limited emotional expression). And I think this is very evident in many ways in our own Anglo culture. My cultural heritage is British and there was definitely a sense of the need to have ‘stiff upper lip’ and not express too much emotion in my wider family circles. I think there’s also perhaps an ideology that women in particular need to be ‘less emotional’ or supress emotions etc. in order to progress in western society as well (e.g., you need to be like Margaret Thatcher, the ‘iron lady’!) And in some Christian circles I’ve even head the fact that women are ‘more emotional’ given as one of the reasons why women shouldn’t be in leadership.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts! I’d be interested to know what your Tanzanian friends think about your theory and about emotions in general and if there are particular terms for emotions in Swahili (or other Tanzanian languages) that don’t really have clear analogies in English.



    1. Thanks for the link Isabel! If frustration is a newer or Anglo concept, it’s definitely one that’s spread to Tanzania, at least in our crowd of urban professionals who, far from the stereotype of the happy-go-lucky African, definitely feel that things are held back and hampered in their country.

      Yes, the big danger here is reading my own cultural expectations of emotional life onto Tanzanians and then assuming that because I don’t see what I recognise as emotional life, it’s not there. And as you say, there’s a question of what is expressed as well, but there may be more underneath. Hence my list of questions at the end!

      Maybe it’s the urban professional crowd we move among, with their drive for ‘development’ but they show great interest in emotional life and want to skill up on it. We went to one TAFES Associate meeting which was a discussion of introversion vs extroversion, for example. One guy spoke of how this information gave him more understanding for his wife and how to create room for her to express herself. So in this sense at least, it’s something they’re identifying as unusual for their culture, but which they see as important.

      Swahili’s tricky with this too. Perhaps it’s an equivalency issue, and I don’t know about tribal languages, but we find uni educated people will prefer English terms over the Swahili for ‘to enjoy’ or ‘to be excited’, for example. And though there are Swahili words, they seem to be words uneducated people don’t know (they will just use ‘happy’, and I’ve stopped using the Swahili, because we want to speak in the vernacular, not just as translations of what we’d say in English). So what’s going on there? Why don’t people know those words in Swahili? Is it just working in a second language? Or is it that those emotions are less important? Or are they particularly western concepts? I don’t know!

      The question about whether women are seen to be emotional or not (and whether this is a liability) is a fascinating one!

    2. Hi Isabel,

      I thought I might weight in here with a psychological perspective. The psych literature is pretty clear these days that emotions are both innate and culturally defined. There’s a basic set of emotions that are common to all cultures. We’re still arguing over how many they are and what exactly goes on the list, but it’s accepted that there are certain emotions that exist in all people. However, the expression of those emotions vary vastly by culture, and the naming of them is limited by the words that exist in that language. It’s worth noting though, that just because a word doesn’t exist in a culture, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that emotion isn’t important in the culture (although it may also mean that!). And of course language and culture are fluid, so things may be lost or new things needed. Part of the work that I do is helping people to rediscover emotion words in their own language that have been lost, and in all reality no longer exist for them, and yet people are desperate for a way to describe their emotions. So I think it may be more complex than saying that the culture doesn’t value a certain emotion.

      The abuse stuff is particularly critical here. Abuse shuts down the emotions and also invalidates the articulation of those emotions. So it’s possible that cultures that are less emotionally expressive are just traumatised cultures. Then again, it may just be a different cultural expression. At the moment, what’s been observed is a correlation, not a relationship of causation. So the explanation of this observation that women’s emotional life is underdeveloped could be the result of observer bias, a cultural value of emotional reserve, a result of widespread abuse, or a lack of emotion in those women, or a combination of all of the above. This may be where it would be helpful to compare between the genders and between groups of abused and non-abused women, if that were possible.

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