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New Year reflections: cultural learning 2017

If I had New Years resolutions, my top one every year would be ‘keep learning.’ The world is big and fascinating and complex, with so much to be explored. Here are three things about my cross-cultural life that I’ve learned this year. In the next post I’ll share some things I’ve been learning personally.

I listened to an introductory lecture series on anthropology. Though cultural anthropology is my every day, I have never studied it in depth as an academic discipline, and I wanted some more categories for where what I do fits into the area as a whole. As I listened to this series, I found my instincts and approach affirmed, picked up some additional language to use, and had my perspective broadened beyond the two cultures I know best: Tanzania and Australia.

I got an insight into a particular kind of joke that people make in Tanzania. It’s this thing where people pretend to be someone or do something, even though it’s not serious. The way we’ve seen this happen most often is when people take a small child from you, tell the child to wave good bye to mama, and set off with them before turning around and bringing them back. This is mystifying to most westerners because it seems like a recipe for a child to start screaming in panic. But here, everyone knows it’s a joke, and it’s meant to build rapport with mother and child. Everyone knows that. We have seen this hundreds of times, and become used to it. We had worked out that it was a thing that people did, and that we had to accept it and go with it, but now I know it has a name: ‘utani’. Like any cultural practice, it can be used for good or evil. A more sinister version is men ‘pretending’ to be the boyfriend or fiance of young girls.

I’ve been working on implementing effectively my knowledge of cultural bargaining practice. We know that the price is dependent on your relationship with the person rather than the value of the goods or services. I blogged about this more than three years ago! And yet, I feel like I’m only just starting to get the hang of this. Recently I was at the second-hand market in Dar getting some clothes for the boys and I was trying to bargain on the basis of the quality of the clothes. I was doing it in Swahili, I even threw in a couple of words of Kigogo, all of which was meant to familiarise myself to the people, and the price was OK but they were clearly holding out on me. As a last ditch resort to get the price down I told them that we were missionaries, not embassy staff, and so have a much lower income. I feel embarrassed making these kinds of arguments because we are obviously still very wealthy by Tanzanian standards, but suddenly, the entire conversation changed, and the price started coming down. I even picked up an advocate who went with me to every other stall, bargaining on my behalf, and always repeating this fact. I should have known. You always appeal for a price to come down on the basis of your capacity to pay. But it takes years to undo my cultural assumptions and learn new ways of doing things.

Categories: Uncategorized Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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