I read a brilliant article the other day about the question, ‘But, is it safe?’ We’re getting this question all the time as we prepare to go back to Tanzania. At one level I think people are probably just asking, ‘is there a war on there?’ because that’s the common portrayal of Africa, but I still find it difficult to answer. Here are some of the thoughts going around my head:
Different places come with different risks
Dar es Salaam has different potential dangers from Dodoma. The traffic is much more congested and chaotic in Dar, muggings are much more common, mob violence is more of a factor. But on the other hand, access to medical care is much better, and it’s a big city with all that offers where Dodoma is quite remote. So it’s safer in some ways, but not in others. That goes for a comparison between Australia and Tanzania too.
Australia is not necessarily ‘safe’.
I was terrified to drive on the roads when I arrived in Adelaide for home assignment – 60km was faster than you drive in an urban area in Dodoma because the roads aren’t good enough to go faster than about 40, plus you’re sharing it with pedestrians and other traffic. So in Australia I felt like everyone was whizzing by – how would they have time to check blind spots or troubleshoot hazards? How dangerous!
There are other dangers too. Children are sexualised and adult-ised much earlier in Australia than in Tanzania. In Dodoma, Elliot was not bombarded with pictures and billboards of near naked women. Clothing is by and large much more modest, and though there’s a strong difference between what girls and boys wear in terms of clothing type (dresses for girls, shorts/pants for boys), slogans and gender-stereotyped colours and patterns are much less of a thing. There’s more room for individual difference without having to be ‘The handsome prince’ or ‘Mummy’s little monster’ or wear clothes that exclusively feature cars, trucks and diggers.
Advertising is also a call to contribute to the consumerist capitalist machine, in a way we find quite overwhelming in Australia. Every TV show has its merchandise, from shows we don’t like Elliot to watch like Thomas the Tank Engine, to the ones we do, like The Octonauts. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with having an Octonauts drink bottle to match your toys, backpack and shirt, but it’s also hard to resist branding in favour of simplicity. However, in Tanzania branding is much less of an issue, so that complication is largely taken off the table. Likewise, if you have to make do with 10 toys instead of 40 toys, you do.
Some dangers are more subtle than others, but that doesn’t make them any less real. But safety isn’t only about what’s real and what’s not, because safety is also about perception and relationship.
People experience ‘safety’ differently.
White people are often called out to in Tanzania. Some of my expat friends experience that as harassment. For them, going to the market is a horrible experience of being name-called. They feel it’s dehumanising, and perhaps it is. Then again, perhaps not. We’ve definitely felt unsafe at times, but most of the name-calling feels kind of benign to me, and I try to see that kind of situation as yet another one in which I can practise language, and a possible source of cultural learning. So I don’t normally feel threatened by it.
But also, the more you talk to people, the more they get to know you and then they become your protectors. I can’t count how many times someone’s made derogatory comments about me (thinking I can’t understand Swahili) or tried to rip me off, only to be told by another local who knows me, ‘No, you can’t treat her like that. You can do it to other white people, but this one is one of us.” What may indeed be a dangerous situation for a tourist or a short-termer may not be dangerous for me. I think it’s easy to view local people as a liability when it comes to safety, but it’s generally been my experience that local people are my greatest asset and allies when it comes to safety. After we know where we’re living in Dar, one of my first priorities will be to make friends with as many people as I can in and around the places I frequent.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.