While we did enjoy our trip, our feelings about Tanzania’s mainland are a bit mixed. We experienced some nice moments and met some friendly people, but we also had a few frustrations. We felt safe and comfortable at all times, but the dominating feeling was one of being a stranger who is not quite welcome to share in the life and activities of the locals.
Except for a three-day organized safari (140 USD per person and day) we did the trip on a very low budget (66 USD per day for the two of us). If you go on an organized tour your experiences will be wildly different, but you will probably have to pay 5–10 times more than we did).
In Tanzania there is no tradition of independent travel: renting a self-drive car is virtually unheard of and getting around without a guide is at best frustrating. There are no signs or street names, and many times locals either refused to or weren’t able to give us directions to any of the local sights. Their most common reaction was: get a guide.
So accordingly, we were constantly approached by local “guides” who offered in a very pushy way to lead us to a market, to a nice viewpoint or to a waterfall, but for ridiculous prices: 40 USD for a three-hour walk in a country where a meal costs 1–2 USD and simple hotels are as cheap as 3–5 USD. Out of sheer frustration and after trying to find the places on our own and not succeeding, we agreed to a couple of these offers. However the “guides” didn’t have good English, weren’t able to talk meaningfully about the local culture and basically limited their “services” to leading us to the agreed destination. But these destinations were usually a disappointment: the market was just a few stalls and the local tribes we just some people living in a modern house. Even after we expressed our feelings about the location, the guides asked (even begged) for a higher pay and an additional tip.
Luckily there were a couple of exceptions:
- Our tour to the Hadzabe tribe was really great — the tribe was very authentic, its people warmly welcoming and the guide showed a lot of knowledge and enthusiasm.
- We were lucky to stumble onto a banana and coffee plantation whose owner explained the entire process of growing, harvesting and processing coffee as well as running a small but self-sufficient farm with various plants and animals.
We happily payed for the above tours and gave an appropriate tip.
The Mzungu Syndrome
Mzungu means white person, and the word doesn’t have any positive or negative connotation. While many food sellers were very happy and proud that we chose to eat at their food stall, virtually everyone else saw us as little more than a large purse with feet. People asked for a lot of money for even the tiniest favor we asked of them.
Virtually all conversation had the purpose of getting us into a shop or making us feel sorry for the person and giving them money. While we do understand that people in Africa are far poorer than a western backpacker, we found this behavior quite extreme, especially compared to all the friendliness you feel in southern and southeast Asia. Here hardly anyone was interested in a normal conversation or in getting to know us on a personal level.
If you spend 150 USD or more per person and day you will experience another extreme: you will have a car, a driver and a cook, and everyone will bow to you and greet you nicely.
But this way you will be so far separated from reality that the feeling of being a stranger is even stronger.
One of the reasons why Katja and I travel is to try local food and beverages, so we were somewhat disappointed to find out that there are basically just four kinds of food on Tanzania’s mainland:
- bananas or chapati for breakfast accompanied by very sweat chai,
- clear-broth soup with some beef meat on the side,
- French fries served with catchup or fried into an omelet
- rice or ugali with beans, spinach and 2–3 pieces of beef.
While each of these are tasty, after 14 days you wish for a bit more variety and especially for something fresh.
Photographing people was a major struggle!
Most Tanzanians actively dislike being photographed. As soon as they see a camera, even if it’s just hanging off of your shoulder, they shout “No Picha! No Picha!” and turn around or cover their faces. Few (mostly those who are not that interesting to a photographer) ask (beg) you to photograph them, but after you do so, they demand ridiculous amounts of money for the picture.
I tried to always ask for permission or at least get some sort of a nod or a sign of approval before I took a picture, but sometimes I shot a picture first because I wanted to capture a particular pose or a facial expression. If someone else on the street saw you taking a picture they would shout “Picha! Picha!” so that the person being photographed immediately demanded their picha-money.
After some experimentation we found out that 1000 TZS (roughly 0.60 USD) is the appropriate compensation for taking a picture of someone, even though they often demand anywhere from 2000 TZS up to 5 USD. On a couple of occasions I asked for permission, then took a photograph and happily payed for it, but in most cases as soon as you pay or agree to pay for a picture, the person in question puts up a horribly bored facial expression looks sideways and waits for the picture-taking to be over.
We experienced all of the above so often, that in many occasions I didn’t even reach for my camera event though there were people with interesting faces or colorful clothing.
An additional source of frustration is travel in public transport. In rural areas you’ll witness many interesting scenes left and right of the street: small boys or older men tending to their cattle, children playing soccer with a ball made out of clothes stuffed into a sock or nice landscapes lit up by the setting sun. But unless you yourself are the driver, you will be unable to stop and take a picture.
Like I said in the beginning, our feelings are a bit mixed. If you go far from the larger towns and cities you will meet genuinely nice and friendly people. But there are so many who want to trick you into giving them a dollar or five that after a few days you get into a state of general mistrust and mostly try to avoid any conversations.
But try to remind yourself that people are different and do give everyone a fair chance.