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What I learned from leading aerobics in Tanzania

TAFES has been having its annual month-long Staff Orientation and Training camp (SOT) in September and I was asked to conduct morning aerobics on weekdays. I jumped at the chance as it is a not-so-secret ambition of mine to become a fitness instructor one day. It was considered a valuable thing for the staff to do because many of them are young and there’s a feeling that they would benefit from the discipline of daily exercise. Also, staff have been appreciative of the opportunity as there is growing awareness of the benefits of exercise for health and mental health resulting in increased interest in it among many urban Tanzanians. Jogging is a feature of the Dar landscape, normally done in groups of up to 30, all clustered in a group going at the one very slow speed with the trainers using flags to direct traffic around the joggers!

I was advised beforehand to only use Christian music and I was glad I did so. I thought perhaps it would be seen as irreverent but I think that is my western Platonic divide. Of course in church in Tanzania there is a great deal of dancing, even somersaulting! Several of the staff mentioned to me they would be uncomfortable with pop music and the worship music I used provided its own motivation, “It is a happy day—Jesus is alive!” and “This is how we overcome!” I ended every class with a prayer, ‘Thank you Jesus for the breath in our lungs and our strong bodies!’

The warm ups were a complete joy with this crowd. They move in time, they clap and sing. However, once we pushed past that, it was very new for most and there were several barriers to continuing. I was giving answers like, “You can’t expect you’ll lose weight if you don’t make a regular thing of it,” and “Yes you do need to get sweaty.” Almost none of them have sports shoes and several did the exercises in thongs (flip-flops). Several of the men showed up in their usual tight pants because they don’t have trackies. There is an additional gender element as well. Some of the women do not feel comfortable showing their legs so they wear pants but wrap a khanga around their waists which preserves their modesty but limits their movement. Several were reluctant to stand with their legs more than hip-width and were especially reticent to do any squats.

Another barrier was the way I had set it up. I knew people would be at different fitness levels so, as you do in a fitness class in Australia, I gave options – “If you can’t do this high-impact move, do this low-impact move instead, but keep moving!” However, generally people did not take the low-impact option unless I was doing it, and then the high-impact people would all follow me as well! In an individualistic society like Australia, exercise is all about having the choices to tailor the class to your ability level. In Tanzania people do things together and are much more comfortable being told what to do, even if it doesn’t suit them. However, this ended up meaning that the less fit participants would just stop—that was easier for them than choosing to do something different. After a while I cottoned on to what was happening and split the group into two – beginners and advanced – and I simply told them what they were required to do. That way, the choice was taken from them and they had a group to belong to. I got much greater participation with this strategy.

There were other things that I did which I’m not sure about either. At one point I was demonstrating keeping your knees out while doing squats or jumping jacks and I said (in English): “None of this business” when I was showing the wrong way. They all thought that was absolutely hilarious and then repeated it several times. I’m not sure if it was just the phrase they found novel or whether I had accidentally intimated something about going to the toilet!

I think I come across a bit crazy. I set the example of pushing my body while still calling out the instructions—at times I was screaming like a fishwife! I’m fairly sure this is not appropriate female behaviour in Tanzania—but I’m not even sure it’s appropriate anyone behaviour!

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

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