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Why your words and actions don’t have to match in Tanzania

I feel like the longer we are here, the more I see how much we have to learn. If we spent our first three years trying to get our heads around prosperity gospel, I have spent the last few years trying to get inside Tanzanian understandings of hierarchy, and it still confounds me at times. This week my language tutor and I spent a long time discussing two complementary proverbs:

Dawa ya moto ni moto; the medicine for fire is fire. (The equivalent in English is: fight fire with fire.)

Fahali wawili hawakai zizi moja; two bulls cannot be in the same pen. (An equivalent in English is: someone has to wear the pants.)

The first, she explained to me, means that you must always pair like with like. A marriage can’t sustain a fire-y person and a reserved one because they are unmatched. One will dominate the other. Both need to be equally strong. I want to ask her about where she sees the biblical proverb about a gentle answer turning away wrath fitting in with this.

However, the second argues that in a marriage there must always be a boss and one who is submissive, or it is better to remain apart.

These two proverbs seemed contradictory to me, but the confusion was not yet done. She told me that in her family, her mother is the bull, with poor control of her tongue or temper, and her father leaves the house to avoid her. I asked her how this aligns with the idea that a wife must always respect and submit to her husband. At first, she told me that her mum just mouths off about everyday things, so I asked if her father is still in charge of the big things, but it was not so.

My language tutor sees her mother as not being able to express herself well, which is why she speaks like this, but she maintained that her mother respects her father as a good Tanzanian woman should. How, I asked, can you say that your mother respects your father when she speaks like this? Then came the answer: because that is just words. Words go into the air, but you can show in your actions that you respect someone.


How many times have I seen Tanzanian women stand up and preach in the most authoritative manner, and then seen them curtsey low to the ground when a male leader – even one of similar status – joins her on stage?

In my culture, we assume an alignment between words and actions. If actions do not match words, we call it hypocrisy, and we believe a person’s words are a window into their heart. But in Tanzania, you know a person’s heart by their actions, and words are of less importance. That’s why you can pay homage to your elder when they’re there, and then not follow their advice. You preserve propriety in the moment, but that does not lock you into anything, and this is not seen as two-faced. Because your actions show who you really are.

The surprising (to me) benefit of this is that it leaves a lot more room for individual differences. My language tutor said that even though her mother mouths off at her father, he is not offended, because he knows she struggles with that, and the other customs are observed, so he is not shamed before others. He just has to get out of the house because arguing with her won’t get anywhere: you can’t have two bulls in together.


Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

7 replies

  1. Hey Tamie, so interesting! Do you know what hypocrisy then looks like in Tanzanian culture? How does ὑποκριτής get translate in Matthew 23? How do they read that in their cultural lens?

    And if it’s acceptable to pay homage to an elder but ignore their advice; does that cultural principle apply in relation to God? Is there a different way of viewing and relating to God?

    (suspending judgment, these are just the immediate questions which jump to mind!)

    1. I’ll ask my language tutor. We’ve been going through various people in society – what makes a good mama / child / student / teacher / elder / guest, etc. I might ask her what is a hypocrite. Some initial thoughts though…

      I think this exists at the level of social convention, more than hypocrisy. A similar one in Aussie culture might be when someone asks ‘how are you?’ and you say ‘fine’ even though you’re not. It’s technically a lie, except what you’re really doing is observing a social convention rather than replying to a question, because they may not be making a genuine inquiry but instead be seeking to engage in a greeting.

      Our worldview determines what we view as moral, and therefore how we see hypocrisy. My language tutor was talking in terms of morality being operating respectfully of others, rather than morality in terms of not lying – a fear/power and possibly honour/shame worldview at work here. Of utmost importance is that the appropriate people feel they have been respected, and the status quo upheld. In terms of how this relates to God, it definitely means that showing respect in church is really important, and that ties in to patronage culture as well. Very common in our denomination here is the ‘thanksgiving offering’ where you give money to church out of thanksgiving to God for a new job or a new baby or whatever, and then invite the church to contribute with you.

      The Swahili word for hypocrisy is unafiki, and Matt 23 uses wanafiki (hypocrites.) Because of the culture of usiri (secrecy) Tanzanians are super interested in hypocrisy. A common example is pastors who preach chastity but have mistresses. Actually, re-reading Matt 23, it seems less about the ‘let your yes be yes’ idea and more about the idea of putting burdens on other that you yourself don’t even follow. That resonates with the Tanzanian idea of hypocrisy I think.

  2. Hahahha, Tamie you have made my day😂.You are very correct, as a Tanzanian, actions speak more than words.

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