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How many pieces of paper does it take to change your address?

After almost a year living in our new place, we thought maybe we should tie up some admin-y things, like telling our bank what our new address is. We tried to think about what we’d need to bring to do that, e.g. identity documents such as a passport, something to prove where we live like the rental contract. That should be sufficient, right?


The bank did want those things, but they also told us we needed a letter of introduction from the serikali ya mtaa. This is a kind of local council authority, but hyper local, as in, half a suburb. The serikali ya mtaa is kind of like a Justice of the Peace in Australia in that they operate in a legal and authorising office in the community. However, the serikali ya mtaa is much more tied to place and to people, and can also play a role in mediating local disputes and representing the community. (There are the larger councils as well that take in several suburbs like what Australians think of as a local council. And there are also even smaller levels of organisation.)

Of course the bank needs a letter like that. Our bank account is not just something between us and the bank. It’s a community thing. Everyone has to be in on it! Otherwise how would they know that we’re for real?

It turns out the builder and general fix-it guy whom our landlady introduced us to is also an mjumbe (literally, representative or messenger), a kind of trusted authority in the community. Hamadi was willing to take Arthur over to get the letter from the serikali ya mtaa.

And here’s the thing. Once Arthur got there with Hamadi, the serikali ya mtaa was not the least bit interested in either Arthur’s passport or the rental contract. What she needed was to clap eyes on Arthur, and have Hamadi’s word about where we live. This was far more authoritative for her than any official piece of paper. In a relational and communal culture, an introduction by a trusted person is everything.

At which point, and for a small fee, she issued an official piece of paper! This is a fascinating little snapshot of modern life in Tanzania, how traditional modes of relating are integrated even into banking systems. With our letter of introduction from a representative in our local community, we are now ready to talk to our bank about changing our address.


Categories: Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

1 reply

  1. The other day I rediscovered what the term is for this: low-context culture (everything has to be spelled out on paper) vs high-context culture (everyone shares a common knowledge of everything). Similar to implicit vs explicit but more about thought-world than personal interactions maybe

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