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Unpacking hierarchy in Tanzania

I’ve been trying to get my head around why Tanzanians might view some hierarchy as a good thing. Australians are deeply suspicious of hierarchy, often viewing it as inherently flawed, a system that inevitably leads to abuse of those at the bottom. Tanzanians do not share our pessimism about hierarchy, so we made it a topic for discussion in our language class this week.

A distinctive of our discussion was the various levels at which our tutor saw hierarchy functioning. Age is an important factor in hierarchy in Tanzania, but because Tanzanians have a different family structure, their relational networks are also far more complex. I kept asking about the marriage relationship, the dynamic of the head and his wife, but this was one of many hierarchical relationships within the family and she found my interest in this particular one odd. A woman is not beholden only to her husband but also to an array of uncles and aunts, sometimes the women more than the men, and likewise her husband has obligations. The marriage relationship may not be their primary form of hierarchical relationship.

Hierarchy in Tanzania does not necessarily mean a linear ranking as the word might imply in the west. It’s not like a ladder with high rungs and lower ones. I think it’s more like a web of obligation and reciprocation. You see this on committees in Tanzania (and everything is done by committee!) There is a President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer, plus various other directors and members. Often the Secretary is the one with most power to actually get things done, and the President doesn’t get a final say so much as presiding over bringing everyone to consensus.

Power is not located in one person but dispersed among many. It is not at all efficient, but it places checks and balances on power. ‘Respecting’ or ‘submitting’ to power might be spoken of in terms of obedience but its goal is making life a little easier for someone who is trying to bring together to a compromise so many different people.

On gender hierarchy within the family, another tempering factor is the way family members need each other. Our tutor said, a head can talk all he wants, but how can he get anything done without a body? And why would he not care for his body, which he needs? (I’m sure I’ve heard that somewhere before…!) She said, a man who views his headship in the family as unbridled power has misunderstood the meaning of the word ‘head’, but also, the vulnerability of his own situation!

Like the secretary on a committee, a wife is ‘the second leader’, the one with the power to get things done. The ‘head’ gives his children his name, and may make decrees or expect special treatment, but she is the one who can decide what they eat, where the children go to school, what money gets spent on, etc. There was a sense of ‘let him think he’s in charge, but we all know the reality.’ I asked our tutor whether this was a way of women carving out some space and power for themselves in what is essentially a patriarchal system. She agreed to some extent: she thought gender equality would take generations to achieve in Tanzania. But then, she also did not see hierarchy as a disempowering force for women.

Finally, I noticed that our tutor spoke of the man as head of the family, but not as the head of his wife. I asked her about this, and again, the collective nature of relationships in Tanzania was on view. The family as a whole has a leader, first the father, then the mother, but the individual relationships are not broken down as tightly, because the most basic unit is a ‘we’ not an ‘I’.

In our family we often talk to our children about ‘how things are’ rather than what we want them to do. For example, instead of saying, ‘I want you not to use bad words,’ we say, ‘We don’t use bad words in this family.’ Or instead of ‘I want you to come in from play,’ we’ll say, ‘It’s time now to come in from play.’ It functions to distance me, and make what might be a request or a command instead an expectation. It’s a bit like that in Tanzanian family structures, where this is how things are, and people play roles according to those expectations without interrogating the intricacies of the power structure.

There are still ways this hierarchy can be abused – of course! Our tutor was able to speak to those. However, she did not see abuse as inherent in hierarchy, and as she unpacked and I saw the complexity of hierarchy in Tanzania, it started to come together for me a little more.

Categories: Tanzania Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

2 replies

  1. Like the web analogy. So hierarchy is more complex than just a ladder. Reminds me of SAH and DW’s view on poverty as a web as well.

    Appreciated the post as I scratch the surface on hierarchy here through language.

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