I would like to share a passage from “Peace like a Monkey: And Other Tales from Life in Tanzania” by Marya Plotkin.
Advice to Wazungu (foreigners): Your Tanzanian friend will generally state his opinions in a roundabout way rather than directly, especially if there is any displeasure. Look out for the understated negative. When things are described as “a little bit good” (nzuri kidogo), they may actually be very, very bad.
Please understand that it is very difficult for your Tanzanian friend to say “no” in response to a question. Rephrase the question so that the answer can be “yes.” For example, “Did you get the new tire for the car?” (Answer: No, I did not get a new tire for the car.) This can be rephrased as, “Did you get the new tire for the car, or were they all out of tires at the shop?” (Answer: Yes, I did not get a new tire for the car since they were all out of tires at the shop.)
Advice to Watanzania (locals): your mzungu (foreigner) friend may say things that are so negative that you get worried. For example, or he or she may say things like “it was a disaster” or “it was a nightmare” in relation to puzzlingly minor incidents, like a phone call with a poor connection or the food taking long to arrive for lunch. Your mzungu friend may have days where she seems sad, gets angry easily, or doesn’t want to talk. This is a condition that wazungu refer to as “having a bad hair day” or “being grumpy.” She is not sick and does not require medicine or need to go lay down. This is similar to the Mtanzania condition of having a lot of thoughts (mawazo mengi).
While this is normal for wazungu, if she lives in Tanzania long enough, she will stop having this condition.
I believe culture is the lens by which we receive the world and eachother. I am glad my children are learning to adapt, interpret and understand people through the lens of others’ culture, rather than uniformly through their own.
I can only imagine the culture clash between the Germans, who exhibit many fine qualities of the mzungu condition, and the local Watanzania when colonialism began here. Oh, and then there was also the slavery and ivory trade thing, but I digress.
Such misinterpretations have other roots as well, one of which was humorously laid bare last night. We came back to our lodge to be greeted by a very happy (and charmingly drunk) German acquaintance who is staying here along with a dozen of her peers. She confessed that at first, she saw our kids on touchpads and thought to herself, “typical American kids, always with their video games.” Then, she learned what we’re doing with them this year, and that time on the touchpads is almost all schoolwork — and expressed admiration for how cool our worldschooling activities are.
To that, I confessed that when we first arrived to Paje, and saw the group of them playing beer pong, we thought to ourselves, “typical priviliged white kids, just coming to party in some underdeveloped country.” It turns out that they all came to Zanzibar for the holidays from different parts of Africa where they are on one year volunteer assignments to help poor and underprivileged people. It was my turn to let her know how cool I think it is what they’re doing.
I suppose Marya Plotkin is right. Stay long enough in Tanzania, and I just might shed some of the “mzungu condition” that leads me to be far more negative and judgmental than I have any right to be.
Below: lovely Germans!